Once more the anti-Nazi plotters tried to persuade the generals to depose the Leader—this time before he could launch his new aggression in the north, of which they had got wind. What the civilian conspirators again wanted was assurance from the British government that it would make peace with an anti-Nazi German regime, and, being what they were, they were insistent that in any settlement the new Reich government be allowed to keep most of Hitler’s territorial gains: Austria, the Sudetenland and the 1914 frontier in Poland, though this last had only been obtained in the past by the wiping out of the Polish nation.
It was with such a proposal that Hassell, with considerable personal courage, journeyed to Arosa, Switzerland, on February 21,1940, to confer with a British contact whom he calls “Mr. X” in his diary and who was a certain J. Lonsdale Bryans. They conferred in the greatest secrecy at four meetings on February 22 and 23. Bryans, who had cut a certain figure in the diplomatic society of Rome, was another of those self-appointed and somewhat amateurish negotiators for peace who have turned up in this narrative. He had contacts in Downing Street, and Hassell, once they had met, was personally impressed by him. After the fiasco of the attempt of Major Stevens and Captain Best in Holland to get in touch with the German conspirators, the British were somewhat skeptical of the whole business, and when Bryans pressed Hassell for some reliable information as to whom he was speaking for the German envoy became cagey.
“I am not in a position to name the men who are backing me,” Hassell retorted. “I can only assure you that a statement from Halifax would get to the right people.”29
Hassell then outlined the views of the German “opposition”: it was realized that Hitler had to be overthrown “before major military operations are undertaken”; that this must be “an exclusively German affair”; that there must be “some authoritative English statement” about how a new anti-Nazi regime in Berlin would be treated and that “the principal obstacle to any change in regime is the story of 1918, that is, German anxiety lest things develop as they did then, after the Kaiser was sacrificed.” Hassell and his friends wanted guarantees that if they got rid of Hitler Germany would be treated more generously than it was after the Germans had got rid of Wilhelm II.
He thereupon handed over to Bryans a memorandum which he himself had drawn up in English. It is a wooly document, though full of noble sentiments about a future world based “on the principles of Christian ethics, justice and law, social welfare and liberty of thought and conscience.” The greatest danger of continuing “this mad war,” Hassell wrote, was “a bolshevization of Europe”—he considered that worse than the continuance of Nazism. And his main condition for peace was that the new Germany be left with almost all of Hitler’s conquests, which he enumerated. The German acquisition of Austria and the Sudetenland could not even be discussed in any proposed peace; and Germany would have to have the 1914 frontier with Poland, which, of course, though he did not say so, was actually the 1914 frontier with Russia, since Poland had not been allowed to exist in 1914.
Bryans agreed that speedy action was necessary in view of the imminence of the German offensive in the West and promised to deliver Hassell’s memorandum to Lord Halifax. Hassell returned to Berlin to acquaint his fellow plotters with his latest move. Although they hoped for the best from Hassell’s “Mr. X” they were more concerned at the moment with the so-called “X Report” which Hans von Dohnanyi, one of the members of the group in the Abwehr, had drawn up on the basis of Dr. Mueller’s contact with the British at the Vatican.* It declared that the Pope was ready to intervene with Britain for reasonable peace terms with a new anti-Nazi German government, and it is a measure of the views of these opponents of Hitler that one of their terms, which they claimed the Holy Father would back, was “the settlement of the Eastern question in favor of Germany.” The demonic Nazi dictator had obtained a settlement in the East “in favor of Germany” by armed aggression; the good German conspirators wanted the same thing handed to them by the British with the Pope’s blessings.
The X Report loomed very large in the minds of the plotters that winter of 1939–40. At the end of October General Thomas had shown it to Brauchitsch with the intention of bucking up the Army Commander in Chief in his efforts to dissuade Hitler from launching the offensive in the West that fall. But Brauchitsch did not appreciate such encouragement. In fact, he threatened to have General Thomas arrested if he brought the matter up again. It was “plain high treason,” he barked at him.
Now, with a fresh Nazi aggression in the offing, Thomas took the X Report to General Halder in the hope that he might act on it. But this was a vain hope. As the General Staff Chief told Goerdeler, one of the most active of the conspirators—who had also begged him to take the lead, since the spineless Brauchitsch would not—he could not at this time justify breaking his oath as a soldier to the Fuehrer. Besides:
England and France had declared war on us, and one had to see it through. A peace of compromise was senseless. Only in the greatest emergency could one take the action desired by Goerdeler.
“Also, doch!” exclaimed Hassell in his diary on April 6, 1940, in recounting Halder’s state of mind as explained to him by Goerdeler. “Halder,” the diarist added, “who had begun to weep during the discussion of his responsibility, gave the impression of a weak man with shattered nerves.”
The accuracy of such an impression is to be doubted. When one goes over Halder’s diary for the first week of April, cluttered as it is with hundreds of detailed entries about preparations for the gigantic offensive in the West, which he was helping to mastermind, this writer at least gets the impression that the General Staff Chief was in a buoyant mood as he conferred with the field commanders and checked the final plans for the greatest and most daring military operation in German history. There is no hint in his journal of treasonable thoughts or of any wrestling with his conscience. Though he has misgivings about the attack on Denmark and Norway, they are based purely on military grounds, and there is not a word of moral doubt about Nazi aggression against the four small neutral countries whose frontiers Germany had solemnly guaranteed and whom Halder knew Germany was about to attack, and against two of whom, Belgium and Holland, he himself had taken a leading part in drafting the plans.
So ended the. latest attempt of the “good Germans” to oust Hitler before it was too late. It was the last opportunity they would have to obtain a generous peace. The generals, as Brauchitsch and Halder had made clear, were not interested in a negotiated peace. They were thinking now, as was the Fuehrer, of a dictated peace—dictated after German victory. Not until the chances of that had gone glimmering did they seriously return to their old and treasonable thoughts, which had been so strong at Munich and at Zossen, of removing their mad dictator. This state of mind and character must be remembered in view of subsequent events and of subsequent spinning of myths.