This book is an underrated gem. I’ve read quite a few tomes on the history of the anti-Nazi underground in Germany, starting (back in my teens) with Hans-Bernd Gisevius‘s inside story “To the bitter end”, a book as entertaining as it is self-serving. Peter Hoffmann at McGill University has written more scholarly treatments, but this volume, at less than $5 in eBook, offers a concise and very readable one-book summary.
The title tried to create a tie-in with the movie “Valkyrie” (on which Hoffmann worked as a historical consultant). Readers looking for a lot of material on the July 20 Plot (a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie) and its leader Col. Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg, will not be disappointed. Yet many of the earlier plots are covered in some detail. Allow me a brief summary of some that really stood out.
In the lead-up to the Czechoslovak adventure, a number of senior army officers around the ousted Chief of the General Staff, Ludwig Beck, and Abwehr second-in-command Col. Hans Oster had planned a putsch, as they expected a major debacle in a battle against the fairly well-armed Czech Army, especially if the French intervened on their side. The cravenness of the Chamberlain and Daladier governments led to Czechoslovakia falling in Nazi hands without a shot being fired, albeit in two installments: Sudetenland at first, the rump state second. This unexpected success gave Hitler (y”sh) a boost and took the wind out of the sails of the would-be putschists.
On Nov. 9, 1939, just minutes after the Führer had prematurely left the Munich beer hall where he had delivered a speech on the anniversary of his abortive 1923 coup, a powerful bomb went off, killing over a dozen people and wounding many others. The bomb maker was a journeyman and clock maker named Georg Elser, a lone wolf (with clear signs of being “on the spectrum”) who had patiently hollowed out a space in a pillar behind the speaker’s rostrum and concealed a bomb with redundant detonator clocks of his own design and construction. (The explosives were pilfered at a quarry where he had taken on a job for that purpose.) Elser was caught while trying to cross the border into Switzerland: he was interrogated for years, as the Gestapo could not believe he had acted alone and kept looking to pin the operation on British intelligence. In fact, SD-spy master Walter Schellenberg, posing as an anti-Nazi Wehrmacht officer, managed to entrap two British MI6 operatives , thus ensuring Whitehall would never want anything further to so with anti-Nazi conspirators in the Wehrmacht.
Elser, who was shot near the end of the war as the Allies were approaching, acted out of left-wing political convictions. The French-speaking Swiss Maurice Bavaud, on the other hand, was a devout Catholic who sincerely believed Hitler was the Antichrist and that killing him was his religious duty. He attempted to shoot him during a commemoration parade in Munich but was, ironically, prevented from getting a clear shot at the target by the arms of other spectators suddenly going up in the Nazi salute. He was caught while trying to get a free ride on a train to Paris, confessed, and was guillotined in 1941.
Two men actually planned suicide bombings. Cavalry captain Rudolf Baron von Gersdorff had been recruited, shortly after the invasion of the USSR, into the conspirator cell around Henning von Tresckow and his adjutant Fabian von Schlabrendorff at Army Group Center headquarters. The most revolting part of Gersdorff’s duties was coordination between the army and the SS Einsatzgruppen (mass murder squads) operating in their rear: while there is no evidence he was an eyewitness, he must have been aware of what they were doing. On March 21, 1943, Gersdorff was to give the Führer himself a tour of captured Soviet weaponry at the old Berlin armory. He arrived with a bomb in his pockets — captured British plastique explosives, with a 10-minute ‘time pencil’ detonator. The tour was scheduled to last 30 minutes: Gersdorff primed his detonator, thinking within 10 minutes he and his target would be blown into the next world. Alas, Hitler rushed through the exhibit in a few minutes, leaving Gersdorff with a bomb about to go off, but no target. He rushed into a restroom and managed to yank out the time pencil just before the acid had eaten through. Gersdorff survived the war to later found a voluntary ambulance and emergency relief service, the Johanniter Unfall-Hilfe (St.-John’s Accident Assistance), under the auspices of the Lutheran branch of the Knights Hospitaler — the Johanniterorden, in which his family had been very active and he himself was an Honorary Commander.
Another would-be suicide bomber was Capt. Axel Baron von dem Bussche. He joined the underground after witnessing the machine-gunning of the Jews of Dubno — he even wanted to strip out of his uniform and join the victims. Being over two meters tall with poster-boy “Aryan” looks, he was to model the new Army uniform and greatcoat design for the Führer — and planned to hide a suicide charge in it, this time with a five-second detonator taken from a hand grenade. His plan was to embrace his target and blow them both up. As fate would have it, the train on which the consignment of uniforms ‘traveled’ was destroyed in an Allied air raid, and the event called off. von dem Bussche returned to the front shortly after, was severely wounded in battle (he lost one leg) and spent the remainder of the war in hospitals and convalescence. He survived the war to later become a senior official in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany.
Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin (son of another conspirator, and related to both Field Marshal Paul-Ewald von Kleist and the 19th-Century Romantic poet and playwright Heinrich von Kleist) was to make a third suicide bombing attempt, but the Führer canceled his appearance at the last minute.
Yet another noteworthy plot was actually shown briefly at the beginning of the movie Valkyrie. A bomb with a time pencil was hidden inside a case ostensibly holding two large bottles of Cointreau liqueur, which was given to one of Hitler’s adjutants, Lt. Col. Brandt — who traveled with the Führer on board of the latter’s personal FW 200 “Condor” plane — to take with him to Berlin for handing over to Gen. Helmuth Stieff who had supposedly won a bet for this liqueur. Alas, the cold during the flight appears to have caused the detonator to malfunction, and the bomb did not explode. Fabian von Schlabrendorff flew out to Stieff the next day to go retrieve the infernal device. (Brandt would later succumb to his injuries from the July 20 bombing.)
(Cinematographic note: In the movie, Junkers JU 52 passenger/transport planes — airworthy specimens of which still exist — were shown instead of the Condor, as well as of the Heinkel 111 on which Stauffenberg actually flew to Berlin.)
As one can see from all the “von”, “Graf” (Count), and “Freiherr” (Baron), many of the military plotters were scions of noble families with long military traditions. Yet I was not quite aware, until reading the book, of several of the linchpins in the plot being related by blood or marriage. For example: Col. Henning von Tresckow, the center of conspiracies at Army Group Center, was a first cousin of his adjutant and co-conspirator Fabian von Schlabrendorff (who survived the war thanks to a miracle, see below); Col. Cäsar von Hofacker, at the center of the Paris cell, was a first cousin of Stauffenberg; while the Protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the brother-in-law of Hans von Dohnanyi, one of the main conspirators at the Abwehr (as Military Intelligence was called). A number were devout Christians, either Lutheran (Tresckow, von dem Bussche, Bonhoeffer), or Catholic (most notably Stauffenberg himself). [The book does not point out that quite a few were knights in the Johanniterorden — not such Gersdorff as described above, but also von dem Bussche, Kleist, and others.]
Motivations are shown in the book to be varied. Most of the officers initially approved, enthusiastically or grudgingly, of the new regime. Some turned against it after the first foreign adventures (e.g., the deposed Army Chief of Staff, Colonel-General Wilhelm Beck), or in the wake of the railroading of Field Marshal von Blomberg and Col.-Gen. Baron von Fritsch — opponents of the invasion plans who had been ousted on trumped-up morals charges. Others joined the underground after witnessing atrocities (e.g., von dem Bussche), yet others after seeing myriad comrades die due to Hitler’s grandiose and ever more dilettantish, delusional, and disastrous military decision making. Sure, there were also some ordinary malcontents, such as Berlin police chief Wolf Count von Helldorf who had been passed over for promotion. And yet others, who at first had approved of the war of expansion, wanted to “save what could still be saved” when the tide of war had decisively turned against Nazi Germany. Yet at the other extreme, the linchpin of the Army Group Center conspirator cell, Col. Henning von Tresckow, explicitly stated that an attempt on Hitler must be made on moral grounds even if it were hopeless: “Then, just as G-d would have spared Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men, He will spare Germany.”
Much ink has flowed about the July 20 plot, which is covered here in great detail. Without rehashing the story, it is worth emphasizing that this was not a mere assassination plot but a comprehensive takeover plan with three components: (a) the assassination itself; (b) the installation of a new government representing all Weimar-era democratic parties as well as the military; (c) a plan for subduing the SS and Party leadership and asserting military control over the capital and other nerve centers — under cover of a contingency plan named Unternehmen Walküre [Operation Valkyrie] for deployment of the Ersatzheer (Reserve Army) against an uprising by the myriad foreign forced laborers in Germany. Part (c) was only implemented thoroughly and efficiently in Paris: in Berlin itself, desultory planning and indecisive leadership led to disastrous results, such as radio stations remaining under the control of the loyalists. Alas, the decisive, practically-minded, and seemingly utterly fearless Stauffenberg could not be in more than one place at a time.
The author addresses the question why none of the attempts succeeded. He points to the near-miss of the Elser bomb, as well as the successful assassination of “the Butcher of Prague” Heydrich (y”sh) in 1942, as factors that led to (a) a drastic reduction in public appearances of Hitler; (b) ever more elaborate security measures, with physical access increasingly being limited to only the most trusted parties (Stauffenberg, as the chief of staff of the Reserve Army, was invited at situation conferences at Führer Headquarters); and (c) the Führer deliberately introducing an element of unpredictability in his schedule, showing up early or late for events, or canceling appearances at the last minute.
Sudden access interdictions forestalled, for instance, the March 11, 1944 attempt of Capt. Eberhard von Breitenbuch. An aide to Field Marshal Ernst Busch at the time, he was to accompany his boss at a briefing for the Führer at the Berghof. He would of course have to hand over his service weapon before entry, but had concealed a pistol elsewhere on his person, with which he planned to shoot Hitler. Alas, the SS guards had been ordered, earlier that day, no longer to allow aides into the conference room. Unlike many, Stauffenberg had fairly frequent access — he was the Chief of Staff of the Ersatzheer (Reserve/Replacement Army), subject to insistent queries as to how he proposed backfilling the mounting losses on especially the Eastern Front. (At the time of Valkyrie, Operation Bagration, a.k.a. the Destruction of Army Group Center, was in full swing.)
It surely did not help matters that the concept of operational security apparently was unknown to some of the key plotters, most notoriously to civilians such as the prime minister-designate, deposed Leipzig mayor Carl Goerdeler. But also some military men such as Stauffenberg’s own adjutant, Lieutenant von Haeften, were maddeningly loose-lipped, making one wonder just how many of them were under Gestapo surveillance.
My personal theory is that SS chief Himmler (y”sh) knew of the plot, but allowed it to proceed, hoping to either become the next Führer in the event of success, or to greatly strengthen the position of the “loyal” SS against the Wehrmacht in the event of failure.
Some anecdotes fall into the “unlike reality, fiction must make sense” category. Let me single out three. (1) The revised Valkyrie plan was typed up by Mrs. von Tresckow and Gen. Olbricht’s secretary at the Bendlerblock, named Margarethe von Oven. Both ladies wore gloves while typing and handling the documents, to avoid leaving fingerprints. Ms. von Oven was arrested and held for two weeks, then released. (2) While recovering from his war injuries in North Africa (including the loss of his right hand, his left eye, and two fingers on his left hand), Stauffenberg refused morphine and preferred to endure excruciating pain rather than run the risk of becoming addicted. The “Valkyrie” director reportedly struck that passage from the script as “nobody will believe this”. (3) On the very day that Fabian von Schlabrendorff’s show trial before the Volksgericht kangaroo court was to take place — which almost certainly would have ended with an agonizing execution by no-drop hanging the same day — an Allied air raid struck the building, and “hanging judge” Roland Freisler was killed on the spot when the ceiling collapsed under a direct hit. When the case came to court again under Freisler’s successor, the Allies were approaching, and the judge acquitted Schlabrendorff on a peculiar technicality — his confession had been obtained under torture, and was therefore technically invalid even under the Third Reich’s perverted legal code. Upon his ‘acquittal’, Schlabrendorff was immediately taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then moved ever further South until his group of ‘prominent prisoners’ — which was to be executed by their SS guards in the event of imminent capture or escape — was rescued by a regular army group under Wichard von Albensleven, who then handed them over to the approaching Americans. Schlabrendorff eventually became a Supreme Court judge in the Federal German Republic.
The book is well-edited: once or twice I had a “fact checker asleep at the wheel” moment, such as the reference to a “Brigadier-General” — a nonexistent rank in the Wehrmacht, where the table of ranks jumped straight from Oberst (full colonel) to Generalmajor, with an additional rank of Generaloberst (“Colonel-General”) sandwiched between General and Field Marshal. Such lapses are, however, thin on the ground.
All in all, if you are only going to read one book about the German anti-Hitler resistance, this would be an excellent choice.