Military history

29. THE ALLIED INVASION OF WESTERN EUROPE AND THE ATTEMPT TO KILL HITLER

THE CONSPIRATORS had made at least half a dozen attempts to assassinate Hitler during 1943, one of which had miscarried only when a time bomb, planted in the Fuehrer’s airplane during a flight behind the Russian front, failed to explode.

A considerable change had taken place that year in the resistance movement, such as it was. The plotters had finally given up on the field marshals. They were simply too cowardly—or thickheaded—to use their position and military power to overthrow their Supreme warlord. At a secret meeting in November 1942 in the forest of Smolensk, Goerdeler, the political spark plug of the resisters, had pleaded personally with Field Marshal von Kluge, the commander of Army Group Center in the East, to take an active part in getting rid of Hitler. The unstable General, who had just accepted a handsome gift from the Fuehrer,* assented, but a few days later got cold feet and wrote to General Beck in Berlin to count him out.

A few weeks later the plotters tried to induce General Paulus, whose Sixth Army was surrounded at Stalingrad and who, they presumed, was bitterly disillusioned with the Leader who had made this possible, to issue an appeal to the Army to overthrow the tyrant who had condemned a quarter of a million German soldiers to such a ghastly end. A personal appeal from General Beck to Paulus to do this was flown into the beleaguered city by an Air Force officer. Paulus, as we have seen, responded by sending a flood of radio messages of devotion to his Fuehrer, experiencing an awakening only after he got to Moscow in Russian captivity.

For a few days the conspirators, disappointed by Paulus, pinned their hopes on Kluge and Manstein, who after the disaster of Stalingrad were flying to Rastenburg, it was understood, to demand that the Fuehrer turn over command of the Russian front to them. If successful, this démarchewas to be a signal for a coup d’état in Berlin. Once again the plotters were victims of their wishful thinking. The two field marshals did fly to Hitler’s headquarters, but only to reaffirm their loyalty to the Supreme Commander.

“We are deserted,” Beck complained bitterly.

It was obvious to him and his friends that they could expect no practical aid from the senior commanders at the front. In desperation they turned to the only remaining source of military power, the Ersatzheer, the Home or Replacement Army, which was scarcely an army at all but a collection of recruits in training and various garrison troops of overage men performing guard duty in the homeland. But at least its men were armed, and, with the fit troops and Waffen-S.S. units far away at the front, it might be sufficient to enable the conspirators to occupy Berlin and certain other key cities at the moment of Hitler’s assassination.

But on the necessity—or even the desirability—of that lethal act, the opposition was still not entirely agreed.

The Kreisau Circle, for instance, was unalterably opposed to any such act of violence. This was a remarkable, heterogeneous group of young intellectual idealists gathered around the scions of two of Germany’s most renowned and aristocratic families: Count Helmuth James von Moltke, a great-great-nephew of the Field Marshal who had led the Prussian Army to victory over France in 1870, and Count Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, a direct descendant of the famous General of the Napoleonic era who, with Clausewitz, had signed the Convention of Tauroggen with CzarAlexander I by which the Prussian Army changed sides and helped bring the downfall of Bonaparte.

Taking its name from the Moltke estate at Kreisau in Silesia, the Kreisau Circle was not a conspiratorial body but a discussion group* whose members represented a cross section of German society as it had been in the pre-Nazi times and as they hoped it would be when the Hitlerite nightmare had passed. It included two Jesuit priests, two Lutheran pastors, conservatives, liberals, socialists, wealthy landowners, former trade-union leaders, professors and diplomats. Despite the differences in their backgrounds and thoughts they were able to find a broad common ground which enabled them to provide the intellectual, spiritual, ethical, philosophical and, to some extent, political ideas of the resistance to Hitler. Judging by the documents which they have left—almost all of these men were hanged before the war’s end—which included plans for the future government and for the economic, social and spiritual foundations of the new society, what they aimed at was a sort of Christian socialism in which all men would be brothers and the terrible ills of modern times—the perversions of the human spirit—would be cured. Their ideals were noble, high in the white clouds, and to them was added a touch of German mysticism.

But these high-minded young men were unbelievably patient. They hated Hitler and all the degradation he had brought on Germany and Europe. But they were not interested in overthrowing him. They thought Germany’s coming defeat would accomplish that. They turned their attention exclusively to the thereafter. “To us,” Moltke wrote at the time, “… Europe after the war is a question of how the picture of man can be re-established in the breasts of our fellow citizens.”

Dorothy Thompson, the distinguished American journalist, who had been stationed for many years in Germany and knew it well, appealed to Moltke, an old and close friend of hers, to come down from the mountaintop. In a series of short-wave broadcasts from New York during the summer of 1942 addressed to “Hans” she begged him and his friends to do something to get rid of the demonic dictator. “We are not living in a world of saints, but of human beings,” she tried to remind him.

The last time we met, Hans, and drank tea together on that beautiful terrace before the lake … 1 said that one day you would have to demonstrate by deeds, drastic deeds, where you stood … and I remember that I asked you whether you and your friends would ever have the courage to act …1

It was a penetrating question, and the answer seems to have turned out to be that Moltke and his friends had the courage to talk—for which they were executed—but not to act.

This flaw in their minds rather than in their hearts—for all of them met their cruel deaths with great bravery—was the main cause of the differences between the Kreisau Circle and the Beck-Goerdeler-Hassell group of conspirators, though they also were in dispute about the nature and the make-up of the government which was to take over from the Nazi regime.

There were several meetings between them following a full-dress conference at the home of Peter Yorck on January 22, 1943, presided over by General Beck, who, as Hassell reported in his diary, “was rather weak and reserved.”2 A spirited argument developed between the “youngsters” and the “oldsters”—Hassell’s terms—over future economic and social policy, with Moltke clashing with Goerdeler. Hassell thought the former mayor of Leipzig was quite “reactionary” and noted Moltke’s “Anglo-Saxon and pacifist inclinations.” The Gestapo also took note of this meeting and at the subsequent trials of the participants turned up a surprisingly detailed account of the discussions.

Himmler was already closer on the trail of the conspirators than any of them realized. But it is one of the ironies of this narrative that at this point, in 1943, with the prospect of victory lost and of defeat imminent, the mild-mannered, bloodthirsty S.S. Fuehrer, the master policeman of the Third Reich, began to take a personal and not altogether unfavorable interest in the resistance, with which he had more than one friendly contact. And it is indicative of the mentality of the plotters that more than one of them, Popitz especially, began to see in Himmler a possible replacement for Hitler! The S.S. chief, so seemingly fanatically loyal to the Fuehrer, began to see this himself, but until almost the end played a double game, in the course of which he snuffed out the life of many a gallant conspirator.

   The resistance was now working in three fields. The Kreisau Circle was holding its endless talks to work out the millennium. The Beck group, more down to earth, was striving in some way to kill Hitler and take over power. And it was making contact with the West in order to apprise the democratic Allies of what was up and to inquire what kind of peace they would negotiate with a new anti-Nazi government.* These contacts were made in Stockholm and in Switzerland.

In the Swedish capital Goerdeler often saw the bankers Marcus and Jakob Wallenberg, with whom he had long been friends and who had intimate business and personal contacts in London. At one meeting in April 1942 with Jakob Wallenberg, Goerdeler urged him to get in touch withChurchill. The conspirators wanted in advance an assurance from the Prime Minister that the Allies would make peace with Germany if they arrested Hitler and overthrew the Nazi regime. Wallenberg replied that from what he knew of the British government no such assurance was possible.

A month later two Lutheran clergymen made direct contact with the British in Stockholm. These were Dr. Hans Schoenfeld, a member of the Foreign Relations Bureau of the German Evangelical Church, and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an eminent divine and an active conspirator, who on hearing that Dr. George Bell, the Anglican Bishop of Chichester, was visiting in Stockholm hastened there to see him—Bonhoeffer traveling incognito on forged papers provided him by Colonel Oster of the Abwehr.

Both pastors informed the bishop of the plans of the conspirators and, as had Goerdeler, inquired whether the Western Allies would make a decent peace with a non-Nazi government once Hitler had been overthrown. They asked for an answer—by either a private message or a public announcement. To impress the bishop that the anti-Hitler conspiracy was a serious business, Bonhoeffer furnished him with a list of the names of the leaders—an indiscretion which later was to cost him his life and to help make certain the execution of many of the others.

This was the most authoritative and up-to-date information the Allies had had on the German opposition and its plans, and Bishop Bell promptly turned it over to Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, when he returned to London in June. But Eden, who had resigned this post in 1938 in protest against Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, was skeptical. Similar information had been conveyed to the British government by alleged German plotters since the time of Munich and nothing had come of it. No response was made.4

The German underground’s contacts with the Allies in Switzerland were mainly through Allen Dulles, who headed the U.S. Office of Strategic Services there from November 1942 until the end of the war. His chief visitor was Hans Gisevius, who journeyed to Berne frequently from Berlin and who also was an active member of the conspiracy, as we have seen. Gisevius worked for the Abwehr and was actually posted to the German consulate general in Zurich as vice-consul His chief function was to convey messages to Dulles from Beck and Goerdeler and to keep him informed of the progress of the various plots against Hitler. Other German visitors included Dr. Schoenfeld and Trott zu Solz, the latter a member of the Kreisau Circle and also of the conspiracy, who once journeyed to Switzerland to “warn” Dulles, as had so many others, that if the Western democracies refused to consider a decent peace with an anti-Nazi German regime the conspirators would turn to Soviet Russia. Dulles, though he was personally sympathetic, was unable to give any assurances.5

One marvels at these German resistance leaders who were so insistent on getting a favorable peace settlement from the West and so hesitant in getting rid of Hitler until they had got it. One would have thought that if they considered Nazism to be such a monstrous evil as they constantly contended—no doubt sincerely—they would have concentrated on trying to overthrow it regardless of how the West might treat their new regime. One gets the impression that a good many of these “good Germans” fell too easily into the trap of blaming the outside world for their own failures, as some of them had done for Germany’s misfortunes after the first lost war and even for the advent of Hitler himself.

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