Military history

26. THE GREAT TURNING POINT: 1942—STALINGRAD AND EL ALAMEIN

THE CONSPIRATORS COME BACK TO LIFE

THE SEVERE SETBACK to Hitler’s armies in Russia during the winter of 1941–42 and the cashiering of a number of field marshals and top generals ignited the hopes of the anti-Nazi conspirators again.

They had been unable to interest the leading commanders in a revolt as long as their armies were smashing to one easy victory after another and the glory of German arms and of the German Reich was soaring to the heavens. But now the proud and hitherto invincible soldiers were falling back in the snow and bitter cold before an enemy which had proved their match; casualties in six months had passed the million mark; and a host of the most renowned generals were being summarily dismissed, some of them, such as Hoepner and Sponeck, publicly disgraced, and most of the others humiliated and made scapegoats of by the ruthless dictator.*

“The time is almost ripe,” Hassell concluded hopefully in his diary on December 21, 1941. He and his fellow conspirators were sure that the Prussian officer corps would react not only to their shabby treatment but to the madness of their Supreme Commander in leading them and their armies to the brink of disaster in the Russian winter. The plotters had long been convinced, as we have seen, that only the generals, in command of troops, had the physical power to overthrow the Nazi tyrant. Now was their chance before it was too late. Timing was all-important. The war, they saw, after the reverses in Russia and the entry of America into the conflict, could no longer be won. But neither was it yet lost. An anti-Nazi government in Berlin could still get peace terms, they thought, which would leave Germany a major power and, perhaps, with at least some of Hitler’s gains, such as Austria, the Sudetenland and western Poland.

These thoughts had been very much in their minds at the end of the summer of 1941, even when the prospect of destroying the Soviet Union was still good. The text of the Atlantic Charter, which Churchill and Roosevelt had drawn up on August 19, had come as a heavy blow to them, especially Point 8, which had stipulated that Germany would have to be disarmed after the war pending a general disarmament agreement. To Hassell, Goerdeler, Beck and the other members of their opposition circle this meant that the Allies had no intention of distinguishing between Nazi and anti-Nazi Germans and was “proof,” as Hassell put it, “that England and America are not fighting only against Hitler but also want to smash Germany and render her defenseless.” Indeed, to this aristocratic former ambassador, now deep in treason against Hitler but determined to get as much as possible for a Germany without Hitler, Point 8, as he noted in his journal, “destroys every reasonable chance for peace.”2

Disillusioned though they were by the Atlantic Charter, the conspirators seem to have been spurred to action by its promulgation, if only because it impressed them with the necessity of doing away with Hitler while there was yet time for an anti-Nazi regime to bargain advantageously for peace for a Germany which still held most of Europe. They were not adverse to using Hitler’s conquests to obtain the most favorable terms for their country. The upshot of a series of talks in Berlin during the last days of August between Hassell, Popitz, Oster, Dohnanyi and General Friedrich Olbricht, chief of staff of the Home Army, was that the “German patriots,” as they called themselves, would make “very moderate demands” of the Allies but, to quote Hassell again, “there are certain claims from which they could not desist.” What the demands and claims were he does not say; one gathers from other entries in his diary that they amounted to an insistence on Germany’s 1914 frontiers in the East plus Austria and the Sudetenland.

But time pressed. After a final conference with his confederates at the end of August, Hassell wrote in his diary: “They were unanimously convinced that it would soon be too late. When our chances for victory are obviously gone or only very slim, there will be nothing more to be done.”3

There had been some effort to induce key generals on the Eastern front to arrest Hitler during the summer campaign in Russia. But though it inevitably proved ineffectual because the great captains were naturally too absorbed in their initial stunning victories to give any thought to overthrowing the man who had given them the opportunity to achieve them, it did plant some seeds among the military minds that would eventually sprout.

The center of the conspiracy in the Army that summer was in the headquarters of Field Marshal von Bock, whose Army Group Center was driving on Moscow. Major General Henning von Tresckow of Bock’s staff, whose early enthusiasm for National Socialism had so soured as to land him in the ranks of the plotters, was the ringleader, and he was assisted by Fabian von Schlabrendorff, his A.D.C., and by two fellow conspirators whom they had planted on Bock as A.D.C.s, Count Hans von Hardenberg and Count Heinrich von Lehndorff, both scions of old and prominent German families.* One of their self-appointed tasks was to work on the Field Marshal and to persuade him to arrest Hitler on one of his visits to the army group’s headquarters. But Bock was hard to work on. Though professing to loathe Nazism he had advanced too far under it and was much too vain and ambitious to take any chances at this stage of the game. Once when Tresckow tried to point out to him that the Fuehrer was leading the country to disaster, Bock shouted, “I do not allow the Fuehrer to be attacked!”4

Tresckow and his young aide were discouraged but not daunted. They decided to act on their own. When on August 4, 1941, the Fuehrer visited the army group’s headquarters at Borisov they planned to seize him as he was driving from the airfield to Bock’s quarters. But the plotters were still amateurs at this time and had not counted on the Fuehrer’s security arrangements. Surrounded by his own S.S. bodyguards and declining to use one of the army group’s automobiles to drive in from the airfield—he had sent ahead his own fleet of cars for this purpose—he gave the two officers no opportunity of getting near him. This fiasco—apparently there were others like it—taught the plotters who were in the Army some lessons. The first was that to get their hands on Hitler was no easy job; he was always well guarded. Another was that to seize him and arrest him might not solve the problem, since the key generals were too cowardly or too confused about their oaths of allegiance to help the opposition to carry on from there. It was about this time, the fall of 1941, that some of the young officers in the Army, many of them civilians in uniform like Schlabrendorff, reluctantly came to the conclusion that the simplest and perhaps the only solution was to kill Hitler. Then the timid generals, released from their personal oaths to the Leader, would go along with the new regime and give it the support of the Army.

But the ringleaders in Berlin were not yet ready to go so far. They were concocting an idiotic plan called “isolated action,” which for some reason they thought would satisfy the consciences of the generals about breaking their personal oaths to the Fuehrer and at the same time enable them to rid the Reich of Hitler. It is difficult, even today, to follow their minds in this, but the idea was that the top military commanders, both in the East and in the West, would simply, on a prearranged signal, refuse to obey the orders of Hitler as Commander in Chief of the Army. This of course would have been breaking their oath of obedience to the Fuehrer, but the sophists in Berlin pretended not to see that. They explained, at any event, that the real purpose of the scheme was to create confusion, in the midst of which Beck, with the help of detachments of the Home Army in Berlin, would seize power, depose Hitler and outlaw National Socialism.

The Home Army, however, was scarcely a military force but more a motley collection of recruits doing a little basic training before being shipped as replacements to the front. Some top generals in Russia or in the occupation zones who had seasoned troops at their command would have to be won over if the venture were really to succeed. One of them, who had been in on the Halder plot to arrest Hitler at the time of Munich, seemed a natural choice. This was Field Marshal von Witzleben, who was now Commander in Chief in the West. To initiate him and also General Alexander von Falkenhausen, the military commander in Belgium, into the new scheme of things Hassell was sent by the conspirators in mid-January 1942 to confer with the two generals. Already under surveillance by the Gestapo, the former ambassador used the “cover” of a lecture tour, addressing groups of German officers and occupation officials on the subject of “Living Space and Imperialism.” In between lectures he conferred privately with Falkenhausen in Brussels and Witzleben in Paris, receiving a favorable impression of both of them, especially of the latter.

Shunted to the sidelines in France while his fellow field marshals were fighting great battles in Russia, Witzleben was thirsting for action. He told Hassell that the idea of “isolated action” was Utopian. Direct action to overthrow Hitler was the only solution and he was willing to play a leading part. Probably the best time to strike would be during the summer of 1942 when the German offensive in Russia was resumed. To prepare for The Day he intended to be in top physical trim and would have a minor operation to put him in shape. Unfortunately for the Field Marshal and his coconspirators this decision had disastrous consequences. Like Frederick the Great—and many others—Witzleben was troubled by hemorrhoids.* The operation to correct this painful and annoying condition was a routine case of surgery, to be sure, but when Witzleben took a brief sick leave in the spring to have it done, Hitler took advantage of the situation to retire the Field Marshal from active service, replacing him with Rundstedt, who had no stomach for conspiring against the Leader who had so recently treated him so shabbily. Thus the plotters found their chief hope in the Army to be a Field Marshal without any troops at his command. Without soldiers no new regime could be established.

The leaders of the conspiracy were greatly disheartened. They kept meeting clandestinely and plotting, but they could not overcome their discouragement. “It seems at the moment,” Hassell noted at the end of February 1942, after one of the innumerable meetings, “that nothing can be done about Hitler.”5

A great deal could be done, however, about straightening out their ideas concerning the kind of government they wanted for Germany after Hitler finally was deposed and about strengthening their helter-skelter and so far quite ineffectual organization so that it could take over that government when the time came.

Most of the resistance leaders, being conservative and well on in years, wanted, for one thing, a restoration of the Hohenzollern monarchy. But for a long time they could not agree on which Hohenzollern prince to hoist on the throne. Popitz, one of the leading civilians in the ring, wanted the Crown Prince, who was anathema to most of the others. Schacht favored the oldest son of the Crown Prince, Prince Wilhelm, and Goerdeler the youngest surviving son of Wilhelm II, Prince Oskar of Prussia. All were in accord that the Kaiser’s fourth son, Prince August Wilhelm, or “Auwi,” as he was nicknamed, was out of the question since he was a fanatical Nazi and a Gruppenfuehrer in the S.S.

By the summer of 1941, however, there was more or less agreement that the most suitable candidate for the throne was Louis-Ferdinand, the second and oldest surviving son of the Crown Prince.* Then just thirty-three, a veteran of five years in the Ford factory at Dearborn, a working employee of the Lufthansa airlines and in contact and in sympathy with the plotters, this personable young man had finally emerged as the most desirable of the Hohenzollerns. He understood the twentieth century, was democratic and intelligent. Moreover, he had an attractive, sensible and courageous wife in Princess Kira, a former Russian Grand Duchess, and—an important point for the conspirators at this stage—he was a personal friend of President Roosevelt, who had invited the couple to stay in the White House during their American honeymoon in 1938.

Hassell and some of his friends were not absolutely convinced that Louis-Ferdinand was an ideal choice. “He lacks many qualities he cannot get along without,” Hassell commented wryly in his diary at Christmas time, 1941. But he went along with the others.

Hassell’s chief interest was in the form and nature of the future German government, and early the year before he had drawn up, after consultation with General Beck, Goerdeler and Popitz, a program for its interim stage, which he refined in a further draft at the end of 1941.6 It restored individual freedom and pending the adoption of a permanent constitution provided for the supreme power to rest in the hands of a regent, who, as head of state, would appoint a government and a Council of State. It was all rather authoritarian and Goerdeler and the few trade-union representatives among the conspirators didn’t like it, proposing instead an immediate plebiscite so that the interim regime would have popular backing and give proof of its democratic character. But for the lack of something better Hassell’s plan was generally accepted at least as a statement of principles until it was superseded by a liberal and enlightened program drawn up in 1943 under pressure from the Kreisau Circle, led by Count Helmuth von Moltke.

Finally that spring of 1942 the conspirators formally adopted a leader. They had all acknowledged General Beck as such not only because of his intelligence and character but also because of his prestige among the generals, his good name in the country and his reputation abroad. However, they had been so lackadaisical in organizing that they had never actually put him in charge. A few, like Hassell, though full of admiration and respect for the former General Staff Chief, had some doubts about him.

“The principal difficulty with Beck,” Hassell wrote in his diary shortly before Christmas, 1941, “is that he is very theoretical. As Popitz says, a man of tactics but little will power.” This judgment, as it turned out, was not an ungrounded one and this quirk in the General’s temperament and character, this surprising lack of a will to act, was to prove tragic and disastrous in the end.

Nevertheless in March 1942, after a good many secret meetings, the plotters decided, as Hassell reported, that “Beck must hold the strings,” and at the end of the month, as the ambassador further noted, “Beck was formally adopted as the head of our group.”7

Still, the conspiracy remained nebulous and the air of unreality which surrounded even the most active members of it from the first hangs over their endless talk as one tries to follow it at this stage in the records they have left. Hitler, they knew that spring, was planning to resume the offensive in Russia as soon as the ground was dry. This, they felt, could only plunge Germany farther toward the abyss. And yet, though they talked much, they did nothing. On March 28, 1942, Hassell sat in his country house at Ebenhausen and began his diary:

During the last days in Berlin I had detailed discussions with Jessen,* Beck and Goerdeler. Prospects not very good.8

How could they be very good? Without even any plans to act. Now. While there was still time.

It was Adolf Hitler who at this unfolding of spring, the third of the war, had plans—and the fierce will to try to carry them out.

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