This time, too, Hitler kept his word.
The barbarism of the Nazis toward their own fellow Germans reached its zenith. There was a wild wave of arrests followed by gruesome torture, drumhead trials, and death sentences carried out, in many cases, by slow strangling while the victims were suspended by piano wire from meathooks borrowed from butchershops and slaughterhouses. Relatives and friends of the suspects were rounded up by the thousands and sent to concentration camps, where many of them died. The brave few who gave shelter to those who were in hiding were summarily dealt with.
Hitler, seized by a titanic fury and an unquenchable thirst for revenge, whipped Himmler and Kaltenbrunner to ever greater efforts to lay their hands on every last person who had dared to plot against him. He himself laid down the procedure for dispatching them.
“This time,” he stormed at one of his first conferences after the explosion at Rastenburg, “the criminals will be given short shrift. No military tribunals. We’ll hail them before the People’s Court. No long speeches from them. The court will act with lightning speed. And two hours after the sentence it will be carried out. By hanging—without mercy.”34
These instructions from on high were carried out literally by Ronald Freisler, the president of the People’s Court (Volksgerichetshof), a vile, vituperative maniac, who as a prisoner of war in Russia during the first war had become a fanatical Bolshevik and who, even after he became, in 1924, an equally fanatical Nazi, remained a warm admirer of Soviet terror and a keen student of its methods. He had made a special study of Andrei Vishinsky’s technique as chief prosecutor in the Moscow trials of the Thirties in which the “Old Bolsheviks” and most of the leading generals had been found guilty of “treason” and liquidated. “Freisler is our Vishinsky,” Hitler had exclaimed in the conference mentioned above.
The first trial of the July 20 conspirators before the People’s Court took place in Berlin on August 7 and 8, with Field Marshal von Witzleben, Generals Hoepner, Stieff and von Hase, and the junior officers, Hagen, Klausing, Bernardis and Count Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, who had worked closely with their idol Stauffenberg, in the dock. They were already pretty well broken by their treatment in the Gestapo cellars and, since Goebbels had ordered every minute of the trial to be filmed so that the movie could be shown to the troops and to the civilian public as an example—and a warning—everything had been done to make the accused look as shabby as possible. They were outfitted in nondescript clothes, old coats and sweaters, and they entered the courtroom unshaven, collarless, without neckties and deprived of suspenders and belts to keep their trousers hitched up. The once proud Field Marshal, especially, looked like a terribly broken, toothless old man. His false teeth had been taken from him and as he stood in the dock, badgered unmercifully by the venomous chief judge, he kept grasping at his trousers to keep them from falling-down.
“You dirty old man,” Freisler shouted at him, “why do you keep fiddling with your trousers?”
Yet though the accused knew that their fate was already settled they behaved with dignity and courage despite Freisler’s ceaseless efforts to degrade and demean them. Young Peter Yorck, a cousin of Stauffenberg, was perhaps the bravest, answering the most insulting questions quietly and never attempting to hide his contempt for National Socialism.
“Why didn’t you join the party?” Freisler asked.
“Because I am not and never could be a Nazi,” the count replied.
When Freisler had recovered from this answer and pressed the point, Yorck tried to explain. “Mr. President, I have already stated in my interrogation that the Nazi ideology was such that I—”
The judge interrupted him. “—could not agree … You didn’t agree with the National Socialist conception of justice, say, in regard to rooting out the Jews?”
“What is important, what brings together all these questions,” Yorck replied, “is the totalitarian claim of the State on the individual which forces him to renounce his moral and religious obligations to God.”
“Nonsense!” cried Freisler, and he cut off the young man. Such talk might poison Dr. Goebbels’ film and enrage the Fuehrer, who had decreed, “No long speeches from them.”
The court-appointed defense lawyers were more than ludicrous. Their cowardice, as one reads the transcript of the trial, is almost unbelievable. Witzleben’s attorney, for example, a certain Dr. Weissmann, outdid the state prosecutor and almost equaled Freisler, in denouncing his client as a “murderer,” as completely guilty and as deserving the worst punishment.
That punishment was meted out as soon as the trial had ended on August 8. “They must all be hanged like cattle,” Hitler had ordered, and they were. Out at Ploetzensee prison the eight condemned were herded into a small room in which eight meathooks hung from the ceiling. One by one, after being stripped to the waist, they were strung up, a noose of piano wire being placed around their necks and attached to the meathooks. A movie camera whirled as the men dangled and strangled, their beltless trousers finally dropping off as they struggled, leaving them naked in their death agony.35 The developed film, as ordered, was rushed to Hitler so that he could view it, as well as the pictures of the trial, the same evening. Goebbels is said to have kept himself from fainting by holding both hands over his eyes.*36
All that summer, fall and winter and into the new year of 1945 the grisly People’s Court sat in session, racing through its macabre trials and grinding out death sentences, until finally an American bomb fell directly on the courthouse on the morning of February 3, 1945, just as Schlabrendorff was being led into the courtroom, killing Judge Freisler and destroying the records of most of the accused who still survived. Schlabrendorff thus miraculously escaped with his life—one of the very few conspirators on whom fortune smiled—being eventually liberated from the Gestapo’s clutches by American troops in the Tyrol.
The fate of the others must now be recorded.
Goerdeler, who was to be the Chancellor of the new regime, had gone into hiding three days before July 20, after having been warned that the Gestapo had issued an order for his arrest. He wandered for three weeks between Berlin, Potsdam and East Prussia, rarely spending two nights in the same place but always being taken in by friends or relatives, who risked death by giving him shelter, for Hitler had now put a price of one million marks on his head. On the morning of August 12, exhausted and hungry after several days and nights wandering afoot in East Prussia, he stumped into a small inn in the village of Konradswalde near Marienwerder. While waiting to be served breakfast he noticed a woman in the uniform of a Luftwaffe Wac eying him closely, and without waiting for his food he slipped out and made for the nearby woods. It was too late. The woman was an old acquaintance of the Goerdeler family, a Helene Schwaerzel, who had easily recognized him and who promptly confided in a couple of Air Force men who were sitting with her. Goerdeler was quickly apprehended in the woods.
He was sentenced to death by the People’s Court on September 8, 1944, but not executed until February 2 of the following year, along with Popitz.* Apparently Himmler delayed the hangings because he thought the contacts of the two men, especially those of Goerdeler, with the Western Allies through Sweden and Switzerland might prove helpful to him if he took over the sinking ship of state—a prospect which began to grow in his mind at this time.37
Count Friedrich Werner von Schulenburg, the former ambassador in Moscow, and Hassell, the former ambassador in Rome, both of whom were to have taken over the direction of foreign policy in the new anti-Nazi regime, were executed on November 10 and September 8, respectively. Count Fritz von der Schulenburg died on the gallows August 10. General Fellgiebel, chief of signals at OKW, whose role at Rastenburg on July 20 we have recounted, was executed on the same day.
The death roll is a long one. According to one source it numbered some 4,980 names.38 The Gestapo records list 7,000 arrests. Among those resistance leaders mentioned in these pages who were executed were General Fritz Lindemann, Colonel von Boeselager, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Colonel Georg Hansen of the Abwehr, Count von Helldorf, Colonel von Hofacker, Dr. Jens Peter Jessen, Otto Kiep, Dr. Carl Langbehn, Julius Leber, Major von Leonrod, Wilhelm Leuschner, Artur Nebe (the chief of the criminal police), Professor Adolf Reichwein, Count Berthold von Stauffenberg, brother of Klaus, General Thiele, Chief of Signals, OKH, and General von Thuengen, who was appointed by Beck to succeed General von Kortzfleisch on the day of the putsch.
One group of twenty condemned, whose lives Himmler had prolonged apparently in the belief that they might prove useful to him if he took over power and had to make peace, were shot out of hand on the night of April 22–23 as the Russians began fighting to the center of the capital. The prisoners were being marched from the Lehrterstrasse prison to the Prinz Albrechtstrasse Gestapo dungeon—a good many prisoners escaped in the blackout on occasions such as these in the final days of the Third Reich—when they met an S.S. detachment, which lined them up against a wall and mowed them down, only two escaping to tell the tale. Among those who perished were Count Albrecht von Bernstorff, Klaus Bonhoeffer, brother of the pastor, and Albrecht Haushofer, a close friend of Hess and son of the famous geopolitician. The father committed suicide shortly afterward.
General Fromm did not escape execution despite his behavior on the fateful evening of July 20. Arrested the next day on orders of Himmler, who had succeeded him as head of the Replacement Army, he was haled before the People’s Court in February 1945 on charges of “cowardice” and sentenced to death.* Perhaps as a small recognition for his vital service in helping to save the Nazi regime, he was not strangled from a meathook, as were those whom he had arrested on the night of July 20, but merely dispatched by a firing squad on March 19, 1945.
The mystery which surrounded the life of Admiral Canaris, the deposed head of the Abwehr who had done so much to aid the conspirators but was not directly involved in the events of July 20, enveloped for many years the circumstances of his death. It was known that he was arrested after the attempt on Hitler’s life. But Keitel, in one of the few decent gestures of his life at OKW, managed to prevent him from being handed over to the People’s Court. The Fuehrer, outraged at the delay, then ordered Canaris to be tried by a summary S.S. court. This process was also delayed, but Canaris, along with Colonel Oster, his former assistant, and four others were finally tried at Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, less than a month before the war ended, and sentenced to death. But it was not known for sure whether Canaris had been executed. It took ten years to solve the mystery. In 1955 the Gestapo prosecutor in the case was brought to trial and a large number of witnesses testified that they had seen Canaris hanged on April 9, 1945. One eyewitness, the Danish Colonel Lunding, told of seeing Canaris dragged naked from his cell to the gallows. Oster was dispatched at the same time.
Some who were arrested escaped trial and were eventually liberated from the Gestapo by the advancing Allied troops. Among these were General Halder and Dr. Schacht, who had had no part in the July 20 revolt though on the stand at Nuremberg Schacht claimed to have been “initiated” into it. Halder was placed in solitary confinement in a pitch-dark cell for several months. The two men, along with a distinguished group of prisoners, German and foreign, including Schuschnigg, Léon Blum, Schlabrendorff and General von Falkenhausen, were freed by American troops on May 4, 1945, at Niederdorf in the South Tyrol just as their Gestapo guard was on the point of executing the whole lot. Falkenhausen was later tried by the Belgians as a war criminal and sentenced on March 9, 1951, after four years in prison awaiting trial, to twelve years’ penal servitude. He was released, however, a fortnight later and returned to Germany.
A good many Army officers implicated in the plot chose suicide rather than let themselves be turned over to the tender mercies of the Volksgericht. On the morning of July 21, General Henning von Tresckow, who had been the heart and soul of the conspiracy among the officers on the Eastern front, took leave of his friend and aide, Schlabrendorff, who has recalled his last words:
“Everybody will now turn upon us and cover us with abuse. But my conviction remains unshaken—we have done the right thing. Hitler is not only the archenemy of Germany: he is the archenemy of the world. In a few hours I shall stand before God, answering for my actions and for my omissions. I think I shall be able to uphold with a clear conscience all that I have done in the fight against Hitler …
“Whoever joined the resistance movement put on the shirt of Nessus. The worth of a man is certain only if he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.”39
That morning Tresckow drove off to the 28th Rifle Division, crept out to no man’s land and pulled the pin on a hand grenade. It blew his head off.
Five days later the First Quartermaster General of the Army, Wagner, took his own life.
Among the high Army officers in the West, two field marshals and one general committed suicide. In Paris, as we have seen, the uprising had got off to a good start when General Heinrich von Stuelpnagel, the military governor of France, arrested the entire force of the S.S. and S.D.-Gestapo. Now all depended on the behavior of Field Marshal von Kluge, the new Commander in Chief West, on whom Tresckow had worked for two years on the Russian front in an effort to make him an active conspirator. Though Kluge had blown hot and cold, he had finally agreed—or so the conspirators understood—that he would support the revolt once Hitler was dead.
There was a fateful dinner meeting that evening of July 20 at La Roche-Guyon, the headquarters of Army Group B, which Kluge had also taken over after Rommel’s accident. Kluge wanted to discuss the conflicting reports as to whether Hitler was dead or alive with his chief advisers, General Guenther Blumentritt, his chief of staff, General Speidel, chief of staff of Army Group B, General Stuelpnagel and Colonel von Hofacker, to whom Stauffenberg had telephoned earlier in the afternoon informing him of the bombing and the coup in Berlin. When the officers assembled for dinner it seemed to some of them at least that the cautious Field Marshal had about made up his mind to throw in his lot with the revolt. Beck had reached him by telephone shortly before dinner and had pleaded for his support—whether Hitler was dead or alive. Then the first general order signed by Field Marshal von Witzleben had arrived. Kluge was impressed.
Still, he wanted more information on the situation and, unfortunately for the rebels, this now came from General Stieff, who had journeyed to Rastenburg with Stauffenberg that morning, wished him well, seen the explosion, ascertained that it had not killed Hitler and was now, by evening, trying to cover up the traces. Blumentritt got him on the line and Stieff told him the truth of what had happened, or rather, not happened.
“It has failed, then,” Kluge said to Blumentritt. He seemed to be genuinely disappointed, for he added that had it succeeded he would have lost no time in getting in touch with Eisenhower to request an armistice.
At the dinner—a ghostly affair, Speidel later recalled, “as if they sat in a house visited by death”—Kluge listened to the impassioned arguments of Stuelpnagel and Hofacker that they must go ahead with the revolt even though Hitler might have survived. Blumentritt has described what followed.
When they had finished, Kluge, with obvious disappointment, remarked: “Well, gentlemen, the attempt has failed. Everything is over.” Stuelpnagel then exclaimed: “Field Marshal, I thought you were acquainted with the plans. Something must be done.”40
Kluge denied that he knew of any plans. After ordering Stuelpnagel to release the arrested S.S.-S.D. men in Paris, he advised him, “Look here, the best thing you can do is to change into civilian clothes and go into hiding.”
But this was not the way out which a proud general of Stuelpnagel’s stripe chose. After a weird all-night champagne party at the Hotel Raphael in Paris in which the released S.S. and S.D. officers, led by General Oberg, fraternized with the Army leaders who had arrested them—and who most certainly would have had them shot had the revolt succeeded—Stuelpnagel, who had been ordered to report to Berlin, left by car for Germany. At Verdun, where he had commanded a battalion in the First World War, he stopped to have a look at the famous battlefield. But also to carry out a personal decision. His driver and a guard heard a revolver shot. They found him floundering in the waters of a canal. A bullet had shot out one eye and so badly damaged the other that it was removed in the military hospital at Verdun, to which he was taken.
This did not save Stueipnagel from a horrible end. Blinded and helpless, he was brought to Berlin on Hitler’s express orders, haled before the People’s Court, where he lay on a cot while Freisler abused him, and strangled to death in Ploetzensee prison on August 30.
Field Marshal von Kluge’s decisive act in refusing to join the revolt did not save him any more than Fromm, by similar behavior in Berlin, saved himself. “Fate,” as Speidel observed apropos of this vacillating general, “does not spare the man whose convictions are not matched by his readiness to give them effect.” There is evidence that Colonel von Hofacker, under terrible torture—he was not executed until December 20—mentioned the complicity of Kluge, Rommel and Speidel in the plot. Blumentritt says that Oberg informed him that Hofacker had “mentioned” Kluge in his first interrogations, and that, after being informed of this by Oberg himself, the Field Marshal “began to look more and more worried.”41
Reports from the front were not such as to restore his spirits.
On July 26, General Bradley’s American forces broke through the German front at St.-Lô. Four days later General Patton’s newly formed Third Army, racing through the gap, reached Avranches, opening the way to Brittany and to the Loire to the south. This was the turning point in the Allied invasion, and on July 30 Kluge notified Hitler’s headquarters, “The whole Western front has been ripped open … The left flank has collapsed.” By the middle of August all that was left of the German armies in Normandy was locked in a narrow pocket around Falaise, where Hitler had forbidden any further retreat. The Fuehrer had now had enough of Kluge, whom he blamed for the reverses in the West and whom he suspected of considering the surrender of his forces to Eisenhower.
On August 17 Field Marshal Walther Model arrived to replace Kluge—his sudden appearance was the first notice the latter had of his dismissal. Kluge was told by Hitler to leave word as to his whereabouts in Germany—a warning that he had become suspect in connection with the July 20 revolt. The next day he wrote a long letter to Hitler and then set off by car for home. Near Metz he swallowed poison.
His farewell letter to the Fuehrer was found in the captured German military archives.
When you receive these lines I shall be no more … Life has no more meaning for me … Both Rommel and I … foresaw the present development. We were not listened to …
I do not know whether Field Marshal Model, who has been proved in every sphere, will master the situation … Should it not be so, however, and your cherished new weapons not succeed, then, my Fuehrer, make up your mind to end the war. The German people have borne such untold suffering that it is time to put an end to this frightfulness …
I have always admired your greatness…. If fate is stronger than your will and your genius, so is Providence … Show yourself now also great enough to put an end to a hopeless struggle when necessary …
Hitler read the letter, according to the testimony of Jodl at Nuremberg, in silence and handed it to him without comment. A few days later, at his military conference on August 31, the Supreme warlord observed, “There are strong reasons to suspect that had Kluge not committed suicide he would have been arrested anyway.”42
The turn of Field Marshal Rommel, the idol of the German masses, came next.
As General von Stuelpnagel lay blinded and unconscious on the operating table in the hospital at Verdun after his not quite successful attempt to kill himself, he had blurted out the name of Rommel. Later under hideous torture in the Gestapo dungeon in the Prinz Albrechtstrasse in Berlin Colonel von Hofacker broke down and told of Rommel’s part in the conspiracy. “Tell the people in Berlin they can count on me,” Hofacker quoted the Field Marshal as assuring him. It was a phrase that stuck in Hitler’s mind when he heard of it and which led him to decide that his favorite general, whom he knew to be the most popular one in Germany, must die.
Rommel, who had suffered bad fractures of his skull, temples and cheekbones and a severe injury to his left eye, and whose head was pitted with shell fragments, was first removed from a field hospital at Bernay to St. Germain to escape capture by the advancing Allied troops and thence, on August 8, to his home at Herrlingen near Ulm. He received the first warning of what might be in store for him when General Speidel, his former chief of staff, was arrested on September 7, the day after he had visited him at Herrlingen.
“That pathological liar,” Rommel had exclaimed to Speidel when the talk turned to Hitler, “has now gone completely mad. He is venting his sadism on the conspirators of July 20, and this won’t be the end of it!”43
Rommel now noticed that his house was being shadowed by the S.D. When he went out walking in the nearby woods with his fifteen-year-old son, who had been given temporary leave from his antiaircraft battery to tend his father, both carried revolvers. At headquarters in Rastenburg Hitler had now received a copy of Hofacker’s testimony incriminating Rommel. He thereupon decreed his death—but in a special way. The Fuehrer realized, as Keitel later explained to an interrogator at Nuremberg, “that it would be a terrible scandal in Germany if this well-known Field Marshal, the most popular general we had, were to be arrested and haled before the People’s Court.” So Hitler arranged with Keitel that Rommel would be told of the evidence against him and given the choice of killing himself or standing trial for treason before the People’s Court. If he chose the first he would be given a state funeral with full military honors and his family would not be molested.
Thus it was that at noon on October 14, 1944, two generals from Hitler’s headquarters drove up to the Rommel home, which was now surrounded by S.S. troops reinforced by five armored cars. The generals were Wilhelm Burgdorf, an alcoholic, florid-faced man who rivaled Keitel in his slavishness to Hitler, and his assistant in the Army Personnel Office, Ernst Maisel, of like character. They had sent word ahead to Rommel that they were coming from Hitler to discuss his “next employment.”
“At the instigation of the Fuehrer,” Keitel later testified, “I sent Burgdorf there with a copy of the testimony against Rommel. If it were true, he was to take the consequences. If it were not true, he would be exonerated by the court.”
“And you instructed Burgdorf to take some poison with him, didn’t you?” Keitel was asked.
“Yes. I told Burgdorf to take some poison along so that he could put it at Rommel’s disposal, if conditions warranted it.”
After Burgdorf and Maisel arrived it soon became evident that they had not come to discuss Rommel’s next assignment. They asked to talk with the Field Marshal alone and the three men retired to his study.
“A few minutes later,” Manfred Rommel later related, “I heard my father come upstairs and go into my mother’s room.” Then:
We went into my room. “I have just had to tell your mother,” he began slowly, “that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour … Hitler is charging me with high treason. In view of my services in Africa I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It’s fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family … I’m to be given a state funeral. It’s all been prepared to the last detail. In a quarter of an hour you will receive a call from the hospital in Ulm to say that I’ve had a brain seizure on the way to a conference.”
And that is what happened.
Rommel, wearing his old Afrika Korps leather jacket and grasping his field marshal’s baton, got into the car with the two generals, was driven a mile or two up the road by the side of a forest, where General Maisel and the S.S. driver got out, leaving Rommel and General Burgdorf in the back seat. When the two men returned to the car a minute later, Rommel was slumped over the seat, dead. Burgdorf paced up and down impatiently, as though he feared he would be late for lunch and his midday drinks. Fifteen minutes after she had bidden her husband farewell, Frau Rommel received the expected telephone call from the hospital. The chief doctor reported that two generals had brought in the body of the Field Marshal, who had died of a cerebral embolism, apparently as the result of his previous skull fractures. Actually Burgdorf had gruffly forbidden an autopsy. “Do not touch the corpse,” he stormed. “Everything has already been arranged in Berlin.”
It had been.
Field Marshal Model issued a ringing order of the day announcing that Rommel had died of “wounds sustained on July 17” and mourning the loss “of one of the greatest commanders of our nation.”
Hitler wired Frau Rommel: “Accept my sincerest sympathy for the heavy loss you have suffered with the death of your husband. The name of Field Marshal Rommel will be forever linked with the heroic battles in North Africa.” Goering telegraphed “in silent compassion”:
The fact that your husband has died a hero’s death as the result of his wounds, after we all hoped that he would remain to the German people, has deeply touched me.
Hitler ordered a state funeral, at which the senior officer of the German Army, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, delivered the funeral oration. “His heart,” said Rundstedt as he stood over Rommel’s swastika-bedecked body, “belonged to the Fuehrer.”*
“The old soldier [Rundstedt],” Speidel says, “appeared to those present to be broken and bewildered … Here destiny gave him the unique chance to play the role of Mark Antony. He remained in his moral apathy.”†45
The humiliation of the vaunted officer corps of the German Army was great. It had seen three of its illustrious field marshals, Witzleben, Kluge and Rommel, implicated in a plot to overthrow the Supreme warlord, for which one of them was strangled and two forced to suicide. It had to stand idly by while scores of its highest-ranking generals were hauled off to the prisons of the Gestapo and judicially murdered after farcical trials before the People’s Court. In this unprecedented situation, despite all its proud traditions, the corps did not close ranks. Instead it sought to preserve its “honor” by what a foreign observer, at least, can only term dishonoring and degrading itself. Before the wrath of the former Austrian corporal, its frightened leaders fawned and groveled.
No wonder that Field Marshal von Rundstedt looked broken and bewildered as he intoned the funeral oration over the body of Rommel. He had fallen to a low state, as had his brother officers, whom Hitler now forced to drink the bitter cup to its dregs. Rundstedt himself accepted the post of presiding officer over the so-called military Court of Honor which Hitler created to expel from the Army all officers suspected of complicity in the plot against him so that they could be denied a court-martial and handed over in disgrace as civilians to the drumhead People’s Court. The Court of Honor was not permitted to hear an accused officer in his own defense; it acted merely on the “evidence” furnished it by the Gestapo. Rundstedt did not protest against this restriction, nor did another member of the court, General Guderian—who the day after the bombing had been appointed as the new Chief of the Army General Staff—though the latter, in his memoirs, confesses that it was an “unpleasant task,” that the court sessions were “melancholy” and raised “the most difficult problems of conscience.” No doubt they did, for Rundstedt, Guderian and their fellow judges—all generals—turned over hundreds of their comrades to certain execution after degrading them by throwing them out of the Army.
Guderian did more. In his capacity of General Staff Chief he issued two ringing orders of the day to assure the Nazi warlord of the undying loyalty of the officer corps. The first, promulgated on July 23, accused the conspirators of being “a few officers, some of them on the retired list, who had lost all courage and, out of cowardice and weakness, preferred the road of disgrace to the only road open to an honest soldier—the road of duty and honor.” Whereupon he solemnly pledged to the Fuehrer “the unity of the generals, of the officer corps and of the men of the Army.”
In the meantime the discarded Field Marshal von Brauchitsch rushed into print with a burning statement condemning the putsch, pledging renewed allegiance to the Fuehrer and welcoming the appointment of Himmler—who despised the generals, including Brauchitsch—as chief of the Replacement Army. Another discard, Grand Admiral Raeder, fearful that he might be suspected of at least sympathy with the plotters, rushed out of retirement to Rastenburg to personally assure Hitler of his loyalty. On July 24 the Nazi salute was made compulsory in place of the old military salute “as a sign of the Army’s unshakable allegiance to the Fuehrer and of the closest unity between Army and Party.”
On July 29 Guderian warned all General Staff officers that henceforth they must take the lead in being good Nazis, loyal and true to the Leader.
Every General Staff officer must be a National Socialist officer-leader not only … by his model attitude toward political questions but by actively co-operating in the political indoctrination of younger commanders in accordance with the tenets of the Fuehrer …
In judging and selecting General Staff officers, superiors should place traits of character and spirit above the mind. A rascal may be ever so cunning but in the hour of need he will nevertheless fail because he is a rascal.
I expect every General Staff officer immediately to declare himself a convert or adherent to my views and to make an announcement to that effect in public. Anyone unable to do so should apply for his removal from the General Staff.*
So far as is known no one applied.
With this, comments a German military historian, “the story of the General Staff as an autonomous entity may be said to have come to an end.”46 This elite group, founded by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and built up by Moltke to be the pillar of the nation, which had ruled Germany during the First World War, dominated the Weimar Republic and forced even Hitler to destroy the S.A. and murder its leader when they stood in its way, had been reduced in the summer of 1944 to a pathetic body of fawning, frightened men. There was to be no more opposition to Hitler, not even any criticism of him. The once mighty Army, like every other institution in the Third Reich, would go down with him, its leaders too benumbed now, too lacking in the courage which the handful of conspirators alone had shown, to raise their voices—let alone do anything—to stay the hand of the one man who they by now fully realized was leading them and the German people rapidly to the most awful catastrophe in the history of their beloved Fatherland.
This paralysis of the mind and will of grown-up men, raised as Christians, supposedly disciplined in the old virtues, boasting of their code of honor, courageous in the face of death on the battlefield, is astonishing, though perhaps it can be grasped if one remembers the course of German history, outlined in an earlier chapter, which made blind obedience to temporal rulers the highest virtue of Germanic man and put a premium on servility. By now the generals knew the evil of the man before whom they groveled. Guderian later recalled Hitler as he was after July 20.
In his case, what had been hardness became cruelty, while a tendency to bluff became plain dishonesty. He often lied without hesitation and assumed that others lied to him. He believed no one any more. It had already been difficult enough dealing with him: it now became a torture that grew steadily worse from month to month. He frequently lost all self-control and his language grew increasingly violent. In his intimate circle he now found no restraining influence.47
Nevertheless, it was this man alone, half mad, rapidly deteriorating in body and mind, who now, as he had done in the snowy winter of 1941 before Moscow, rallied the beaten, retreating armies and put new heart into the battered nation. By an incredible exercise of will power which all the others in Germany—in the Army, in the government and among the people—lacked, he was able almost singlehandedly to prolong the agony of war for well nigh a year.
The revolt of July 20,1944, had failed not only because of the inexplicable ineptness of some of the ablest men in the Army and in civilian life, because of the fatal weakness of character of Fromm and Kluge and because misfortune plagued the plotters at every turn. It had flickered out because almost all the men who kept this great country running, generals and civilians, and the mass of the German people, in uniform and out, were not ready for a revolution—in fact, despite their misery and the bleak prospect of defeat and foreign occupation, did not want it. National Socialism, notwithstanding the degradation it had brought to Germany and Europe, they still accepted and indeed supported, and in Adolf Hitler they still saw the country’s savior.
At that time [Guderian later wrote]—the fact seems beyond dispute—the great proportion of the German people still believed in Adolf Hitler and would have been convinced that with his death the assassin had removed the only man who might still have been able to bring the war to a favorable conclusion.48
Even after the end of the war General Blumentritt, who was not in on the conspiracy but would have supported it had his chief, Kluge, been of sterner stuff, found that at least “one half of the civil population was shocked that the German generals had taken part in the attempt to overthrow Hitler, and felt bitterly toward them in consequence—and the same feeling was manifested in the Army itself.”49
By a hypnotism that defies explanation—at least by a non-German—Hitler held the allegiance and trust of this remarkable people to the last. It was inevitable that they would follow him blindly, like dumb cattle but also with a touching faith and even an enthusiasm that raised them above the animal herd, over the precipice to the destruction of the nation.
* On his sixtieth birthday, October 30, 1942, Kluge received from the Fuehrer a check for 250,000 marks ($100,000 at the official rate of exchange) and a special permit to spend half of it on the improvement of his estate. Notwithstanding this insult to his honesty and honor as a German officer, the Field Marshal accepted both. (Schlabrendorff, They Almost Killed Hitler, p. 40.) Later when Kluge turned against Hitler the Fuehrer told his officers at headquarters, “I personally promoted him twice, gave him the highest decorations, gave him a large estate … and a large supplement to his pay as Field Marshal …” (Gilbert, Hitler Directs His War, pp. 101–02, a stenographic account of Hitler’s conference at headquarters on August 31, 1944.)
* “We are to be hanged,” Moltke wrote to his wife just before his execution, “for thinking together.”
* It is said in some of the German memoirs that in 1942 and 1943 the Nazis were in contact with the Russians about a possible peace negotiation and even that Stalin had offered to initiate talks for a separate peace. Ribbentrop on the stand at Nuremberg made a good deal of his own efforts to get in touch with the Russians and said he actually made contact with Soviet agents at Stockholm. Peter Kleist, who acted for Ribbentrop in Stockholm, had told of this in his book.3 I suspect that when all the secret German papers are sorted, a revealing chapter on this episode may come to light.
* Executed by the Nazis.
* At the first meeting, Schlabrendorff says, he had an opportunity to examine Hitler’s oversize cap. He was struck by its weight. On examination it proved to be lined with three and a half pounds of steel plating.
† Executed by the Nazis.
* One of the difficulties of piecing together the deeds of the plotters is that the memories of the few survivors are far from perfect, so that their accounts not only often differ but are contradictory. Schlabrendorff, for example, who had brought the bombs to Gersdorff, recounts in his book that because they could not find a short enough time fuse the Zeughaus attempt “had to be given up.” He apparently was unaware, or forgot, that Gersdorff actually went to the Zeughaus to try to carry out his assignment, though the colonel says that the night before he told him he was “determined to do it” with the fuses he had.
* Hassell describes the painful scene in his diary. “He asked me to spare him the embarrassment of my presence,” Hassell writes. “When I started to remonstrate he interrupted me harshly.” (The Von Hassell Diaries, pp. 256–57.) Only when Weizsaecker was safely settled down in the Vatican later, as German ambassador there, did he urge the conspirators to action. “This is easy to do from the Vatican,” Hassell commented. Weizsaecker survived to write his somewhat shabby memoirs. Hassell’s diary was published after his execution.
* Bonhoeffer, Dohnanyi and Oster were all executed by the S.S. on April 9, 1945, less than a month before Germany’s capitulation. Their extinction seems to have been an act of revenge on the part of Himmler. Mueller alone survived.
* Apparently Himmler had widened his net in the intervening four months. According to Reitlinger some seventy-four persons were arrested as the result of Dr. Reckse’s spying. (Reitlinger, The S.S., p. 304.)
† First the Japanese ambassador intervened to delay their trial. Then on February 3, 1945, a bomb dropped during a daylight attack by the American Air Force not only killed Roland Freisler, while he was presiding over one of his grisly treason trials, but destroyed the dossier on the Solfs, which was in the files of the People’s Court. They were nevertheless scheduled to be tried by this court on April 27, but by that time the Russians were in Berlin. Actually the Solfs were released from Moabit prison on April 23, apparently because of an error. (Wheeler-Bennett,Nemesis, p. 595n., and Pechel, Deutscher Widerstand, pp. 88–93.)
* Canaris was made chief of the Office for Commercial and Economic Warfare. With the assumption of this empty title the “little Admiral” faded out of German history. He was so shadowy a figure that no two writers agree as to what kind of man he was, or what he believed in, if anything much. A cynic and a fatalist, he had hated the Weimar Republic and worked secretly against it and then turned similarly on the Third Reich. His days, like those of all the other prominent men in the Abwehr save one (General Lahousen), were now numbered, as we shall see.
* The Kleists, father and son, were later arrested. The father was executed on April 16, 1945; his son survived.
† Hitler often discussed this technique with his old party cronies. There is a stenographic record of a monologue of his at headquarters on May 3, 1942. “I quite understand,” he said, “why ninety per cent of the historic assassinations have been successful. The only preventive measure one can take is to live irregularly—to walk, to drive and to travel at irregular times and unexpectedly … As far as possible, whenever I go anywhere by car I go off unexpectedly and without warning the police.” (Hitler’s Secret Conversations, p. 366.)
Hitler had always been aware, as we have seen, that he might be assassinated. In his war conference on August 22, 1939, on the eve of the attack on Poland, he had emphasized to his generals that while he personally was indispensable he could “be eliminated at any time by a criminal or an idiot.”
In his ramblings on the subject on May 3, 1942, he added, “There can never be absolute security against fanatics and idealists … If some fanatic wishes to shoot me or kill me with a bomb, I am no safer sitting down than standing up.” He thought, though, that “the number of fanatics who seek my life on idealistic grounds is getting much smaller … The only really dangerous elements are either those fanatics who have been goaded to action by dastardly priests or nationalist-minded patriots from one of the countries we have occupied. My many years of experience make things fairly difficult even for such as these.” (Ibid., p. 367.)
* At their meeting at Casablanca Churchill and Roosevelt had issued on January 24, 1943, their declaration of unconditional surrender for Germany. Goebbels naturally made a great deal of this in trying to whip the German people into a state of all-out resistance but in the opinion of this author his success has been grossly exaggerated by a surprisingly large number of Western writers.
* Because of Allied air superiority in the West, Hitler had forbidden his senior commanders to travel by plane.
* “If, in spite of the enemy’s air superiority, we succeed in getting a large part of our mobile force into action in the threatened coast defense sectors in the first hours, I am convinced that the enemy attack on the coast will collapse completely on its first day,” Rommel had written General Jodl on April 23, less than two months before. (The Rommel Papers, ed. Liddell Hart, p. 468.) Hitler’s strict orders had made it impossible to throw in the armored divisions “in the first hours” or even the first days. When they finally arrived they were thrown in piecemeal and failed.
* The talks lasted from 9 A.M. to 4 P.M., with a break for lunch—“a one-dish meal,” Speidel recounts, “at which Hitler bolted a heaped plate of rice and vegetables, after it had been previously tasted for him. Pills and liqueur glasses containing various medicines were ranged around his place, and he took them in turn. Two S.S. men stood guard behind his chair.”
* Rundstedt’s dismissal may have come partly as the result of his blunt words to Keitel the night before. The latter had rung him up to inquire about the situation. An all-out German attack on the British lines by four S.S. panzer divisions had just floundered and Rundstedt was in a gloomy mood.
“What shall we do?” cried Keitel.
“Make peace, you fools,” Rundstedt retorted. “What else can you do?”
It seems that Keitel, the “telltale toady,” as most Army field commanders called him, went straight to Hitler with the remarks. The Fuehrer was at that moment conferring with Kluge, who had been on sick leave for the last few months as the result of injuries sustained in a motor accident. Kluge was immediately named to replace Rundstedt. In such ways were top commands changed by the Nazi warlord. General Blumentritt told of the telephone conversation to both Wilmot (The Struggle for Europe, p. 347) and Liddell Hart (The German Generals Talk, p. 205).
* Speidel quotes the writer Ernst Juenger, whose books had once been popular in Nazi Germany but who eventually had turned and had joined the Paris end of the plot: “The blow that felled Rommel on the Livarot Road on July 17 deprived our plan of the only man strong enough to bear the terrible weight of war and civil war simultaneously.” (Speidel, Invasion 1944, p. 119.)
* This came out in the “Rote Kapelle” affair in 1942, when the Abwehr discovered a large number of strategically placed Germans, many of them from old, prominent families, running an extensive espionage network for the Russians. At one time they were transmitting intelligence to Moscow over some 100 clandestine radio transmitters in Germany and in the occupied countries of the West. The leader of the “Rote Kapelle” (Red Orchestra) was Harold Schulze-Boysen, a grandson of Grand Admiral von Tirpitz, a picturesque leader of the “lost generation” after the First World War and a familiar Bohemian figure in those days in Berlin, where his black sweater, his thick mane of blond hair and his passion for revolutionary poetry and politics attracted attention. At that time he rejected both Nazism and Communism, though he considered himself a man of the Left. Through his mother he got into the Luftwaffe as a lieutenant at the outbreak of the war and wormed himself into Goering’s “research” office, the Forschungsamt, which, as we have seen in connection with the Anschluss, specialized in tapping telephones. Soon he was organizing a vast espionage service for Moscow, with trusted associates in every ministry and military office in Berlin. Among these were Arvid Harnack, nephew of a famous theologian, a brilliant young economist in the Ministry of Economics, who was married to an American woman, Mildred Fish, whom he had met at the University of Wisconsin; Franz Scheliha in the Foreign Office; Horst Heilmann in the Propaganda Ministry; and Countess Erika von Brockdorff in the Ministry of Labor.
Two Soviet agents who parachuted into Germany and were later apprehended gave the “Rote Kapelle” away, and a large number of arrests followed.
Of the seventy-five leaders charged with treason, fifty were condemned to death, including Schulze-Boysen and Harnack. Mildred Harnack and Countess von Brockdorff got off with prison sentences but Hitler insisted that they be executed too, and they were. To impress would-be traitors the Fuehrer ordered that the condemned be hanged. But there were no gallows in Berlin, where the traditional form of execution was the ax, and so the victims were simply strangled by a rope around their necks which was attached to a meathook (borrowed from an abattoir) and slowly hoisted. From then on this method of hanging was to be employed, as a special form of cruelty, on those who dared to defy the Fuehrer.
* All four, Leber, Reichwein, Jacob and Saefkow, were executed.
* There is disagreement among the historians whether Stauffenberg set out for Rastenburg or the Obersalzberg. The two most authoritative German writers on the subject, Eberhard Zeller and Professor Gerhard Ritter, give contradictory accounts. Zeller thinks Hitler was still at Berchtesgaden, but Ritter is sure this is a mistake and that the Fuehrer had returned to Rastenburg. Unfortunately Hitler’s daily calendar book, which has proved an unfailing guide to this writer up to this point, was not captured intact and does not cover this period. But the best evidence, including a report on Stauffenberg’s movements drawn up at Fuehrer headquarters on July 22, indicates pretty conclusively that on July 15 Hitler was at Rastenburg and that it was there that Stauffenberg planned to kill him. Though the two places from which Hitler tried to conduct the war—he was rarely in Berlin, which was being unmercifully bombed—were about equidistant from the capital, Berchtesgaden, being more centrally located and near Munich, where the Army garrison was believed to be loyal to Beck, had certain advantages over Rastenburg for the conspirators.
* General Adolf Heusinger, Chief of Operations of the Army High Command, recounts that on July 19 the news from the Ukrainian front was so bad that he inquired at OKW whether the Replacement Army had any troops in training in Poland which might be thrown into the Eastern front. Keitel suggested that Stauffenberg be summoned the next day to advise them. (Heusinger, Befehl im Widerstreit, p. 350.)
† FitzGibbon says (20 July, p. 150) “it is believed that he had previously confessed, but of course could not be granted absolution.” The author recounts that Stauffenberg had told the Bishop of Berlin, Cardinal Count Preysing, of what he intended to do, and that the bishop had replied that he honored the young man’s motives and did not feel justified in attempting to restrain him on theological grounds. (Ibid., p. 152.)
* A number of writers have declared that Hitler’s daily military conferences at Rastenburg usually took place in his underground bunker and that because of repairs being made to it and because of the hot, humid day, the meeting on July 20 was shifted to the building aboveground. “This accidental change of place saved Hitler’s life,” Bullock writes (Hitler, p. 681). It is to be doubted if there was any accidental change of place. The Lagebaracke, as its name implies, was, so far as I can make out, the place where the daily conferences were usually held. Only in case of threatened air raids were the meetings adjourned to the underground bunker which, at that, would have been cooler on this sweltering day. (See Zeller, Geist der Freiheit, p. 360, n.4.)
* According to the account given Allied interrogators by Admiral Kurt Assmann, who was present, Stauffenberg had whispered to Brandt, “I must go and telephone. Keep an eye on my briefcase. It has secret papers in it.”
† A good many writers have contended that at this moment General Fellgiebel was to have blown up the communications center and that his failure to do so was disastrous to the conspiracy. Thus Wheeler-Bennett (Nemesis, p. 643) writes that “General Fellgiebel failed lamentably in the execution of his task.” Since the various communications centers were housed in several different underground bunkers, heavily guarded by S.S., it is most improbable that Stauffenberg’s plans ever called for blowing them up—an impossible task for the General. What Fellgiebel agreed to do was to shut off communication with the outside world for two or three hours after he had sent word to Berlin of the explosion. This, except for an unavoidable lapse or two, he did.
* The official stenographer, Berger, was killed, and Colonel Brandt, General Schmundt, Hitler’s adjutant, and General Korten died of their wounds. All the others, including Generals Jodl, Bodenschatz (Goering’s chief of staff) and Heusinger, were more or less severely injured.
* Ribbentrop had been a champagne salesman and then had married the daughter of Germany’s leading producer of the wine. His “von” had come through adoption by an aunt—Fräulein Gertrud von Ribbentrop—in 1925, when he was thirty-two years old.
* A few weeks before, Leonrod had asked an Army chaplain friend of his, Father Hermann Wehrle, whether the Catholic Church condoned tyrannicide and had been given a negative answer. When this came out in Leonrod’s trial before the People’s Court, Father Wehrle was arrested for not having told the authorities and, like Leonrod, was executed.
* “To think that these revolutionaries weren’t even smart enough to cut the telephone wires!” Goebbels is said to have exclaimed afterward. “My little daughter would have thought of that.” (Curt Riess, Joseph Goebbels: The Devil’s Advocate, p. 280.)
* There are conflicting stories as to why the Berlin radio was not seized. According to one account, a unit from the infantry school at Doeberitz had been assigned this task, which was to be carried out by the commandant, General Hitzfeld, who was in on the plot. But the conspirators failed to warn Hitzfeld that July 20 was the day, and he was away in Baden attending the funeral of a relative. His second-in-command, a Colonel Mueller, was also away on a military assignment. When Mueller finally returned about 8 P.M. he found that his best battalion had left for a night exercise. By the time he rounded up his troops at midnight, it was too late. According to a different story, a Major Jacob succeeded in surrounding the Rundfunkhaus with troops from the infantry school but could get no clear orders from Olbricht as to what to do. When Goebbels phoned the text of the first announcement Jacob did not interfere with its being broadcast. Later the major contended that if Olbricht had given him the necessary orders the German radio network could easily have been denied the Nazis and put at the service of the conspirators. The first version is given by Zeller (Geist der Freiheit, pp. 267–68), the most authoritative German historian on the July 20 plot; the second is given by Wheeler-Bennett (Nemesis, pp. 654–55/1.) and Rudolf Sammler (Goebbels: The Man Next to Hitler, p. 138), both of whom say Major Jacob gave the above testimony.
* His treachery did not prevent his being arrested for complicity in the plot and hanged for it.
* Though the film of this trial was found by the Allies (and shown at Nuremberg, where the author first saw it) that of the executions was never discovered and presumably was destroyed or the orders of Hitler lest it fall into enemy hands. According to Allen Dulles the two films—originally thirty miles long and cut to eight miles—were put together by Goebbels and shown to certain Army audiences as a lesson and a warning. But the soldiers refused to look at it—at the Cadet School at Lichterfelde they walked out as it began to run—and it was soon withdrawn from circulation. (Dulles, Germany’s Underground, p. 83.)
* Father Alfred Delp, Jesuit member of the Kreisau Circle, was executed with them. Goerdeler’s brother, Fritz, was hanged a few days later. Count von Moltke, the leader of the Kreisau Circle, was executed on January 23, 1945, though he had had no part in the assassination plot. Trott zu Solz, a leading light in the Circle and in the conspiracy, was hanged on August 25, 1944.
* “The sentence affected him deeply,” Schlabrendorff, who saw a good deal of Fromm at the Prinz Albrechtstrasse Gestapo prison, later recounted. “He had not expected it.” (Schlabrendorff, They Almost Killed Hitler, p. 121.)
* It is only fair to add that Rundstedt probably did not know of the circumstances of Rommel’s death, apparently learning them only from Keitel’s testimony at Nuremberg. “I did not hear these rumors,” Rundstedt testified on the stand, “otherwise I would have refused to act as representative of the Fuehrer at the state funeral; that would have been an infamy beyond words.”44 Nevertheless the Rommel family noticed that this gentleman of the old school declined to attend the cremation after the funeral and to come to the Rommel home, as did most of the other generals, to extend condolences to the widow.
† General Speidel himself, though incarcerated in the cellars of the Gestapo prison in the Prinz Albrechtstrasse in Berlin and subjected to incessant questioning, became neither broken nor bewildered. Being a philosopher as well as a soldier perhaps helped. He outwitted his S.D. tormentors, admitting nothing and betraying no one. He had one bad moment when he was confronted with Colonel von Hofacker, who, he believes, had been not only tortured but drugged into talking, but on this occasion Hofacker did not betray him and repudiated what he had previously said.45
Though never brought to trial, Speidel was kept in Gestapo custody for seven months. As American troops neared his place of confinement near Lake Constance in southern Germany, he escaped with twenty others by a ruse and took refuge with a Catholic priest, who hid the group until the Americans arrived. Speidel omits this chapter of his life in his book, which is severely objective and written in the third person, but he told the story to Desmond Young who gives it in his Rommel—The Desert Fox (pp. 251–52 of the paperback edition).
Capping an unusual career, Speidel held an important command at NATO in the late 1950s.
* In his memoirs, Guderian, who constantly emphasizes how he stood up to Hitler and criticizes him bitterly, makes no mention of these orders of the day.