Today, 77 years ago to the day, Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg famously placed his bomb in the Führer’s conference room, then flew to Berlin to lead a coup by military and civilian opponents of the National Socialist regime. The coup failed, and many of them paid with their lives in ways reminescent of medieval times.
Stauffenberg’s was only the latest in a series of assassination attempts. My alternate history series, “Operation Flash”, explores a timeline in which one of them, the Arsenal Plot of March 21, 1943 had succeeded. Then the plotters, now the Emergency Reich Government, quickly learn killing the dictator had been the easy part.
Below is the first draft of a chapter from volume 4 in the series, “Hungarian Rhapsody”. Protagonist Felix Winter began the series as a junior Abwehr officer and is by now Chancellor Carl Goerdeler military aide.
New Reich Chancellary
— Felix Winter —
After we’d smoked out police chief Arthur Nebe and his plot against the Emergency Reich Government, Chancellor Goerdeler and Reichsverweser Beck had persuaded Internal Security Minister Tresckow that we needed to have a long, good look at some of the more dubious recruits to the anti-Hitler conspiracy that had become the ERG.
Because of my role in unmasking Nebe, they’d agreed on me to oversee this activity. The more senior characters I got to interview myself.
The phone rang.
“Colonel Winter, General Thomas from the Wehrwirtschaftamt [Defense Economic Office] to see you,” my aide announced.
“Very well, send him in.”
I’d gone through his file. This one isn’t going to be pleasant.
A general strode in, but he looked to me more like a business executive dressed up in an army uniform than a soldier.
I saluted, he perfunctorily saluted back, then he took the seat I pointed out to him. I led off with a few innocent questions.
“General Thomas, how did you come to go into the economic side of warfare?”
“My father was a factory owner. I realize very early on that any modern war would be a total war unlike any the world has ever known.”
“In what way?”
“In that industry would be an integral part.”
“And agriculture too?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Including starving occupied populations?”
He did not even look surprised.
“What do you know about Generalplan Ost?”
“Too much, unfortunately.”
“Are you going to deny you were involved in it?”
“Allow me to speak, please.”
“I am all ears,” I answered, as I braced myself for self-serving drivel.
Thomas took a deep breath. “I knew this war was going to be bad news, and tried to talk Hitler out of it.”
“By explaining in great detail the economic power of the Allies. I did my homework: whatever else you can say about the late Führer, he was excellent at catching mistakes in briefings. Of course, he still said I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
“When the planning for Barbarossa started, I convinced General Halder that we weren’t ready, that we had fuel reserves for at most two months, and that we should at least delay until we’d built up enough of a reserve. Better still, never invade at all.”
“Keitel and Göring stepped in, saying it would not matter, as we could just live off the occupied lands.”
“And you’d have no problem with that?”
Thomas did not even pretend he did. I continued.
“General Thomas, I have here a report saying that if all the grain to feed the Wehrmacht is taken from occupied Russia, I quote, ‘umpteen million civilians will die of starvation’. Your signature is on the report.”
“Yes, I wrote that. Not that Göring and Keitel cared.”
Both of those scoundrels were dead now, of course, cremated and their ashes scattered in the Spree. “And did you care?”
Thomas answered with an eloquent shrug. “In war, you do what you have to do.”
“So what did you have a problem with then?”
“Winter, there is another report you should see. I have a copy with me.”
He opened his attaché case — I didn’t suspect a weapon, as he’d have been searched already —pulled out a folder, and opened it to a page he’d earmarked.
“This here is a calculation of the economic value of what we extracted from the occupied territories in the East. Now if you go to this page here”, he pulled out a loose leaf, “you will see that we actually got slightly more out of just Belgium, which Falkenhausen ran in a fairly peaceful way.”
Compared to occupied Russia, which wasn’t saying a whole lot.
“And if you look at this report,” he pulled out another binder, “you will see the economic value of what we got from the Soviet Union during the period of the nonaggression pact”.
I was stunned by what I saw. We’d actually gotten more from the Soviets during peacetime than what we’d been able to extract, in the most brutal way possible, from occupied Soviet territory.
“So what you are saying?”
“That we killed millions of people for what we could have gotten more efficiently without killing one person.”
“And that is when—”
“I’d been doubting National Socialism since the Fritsch affair in 1938. So I sought contact with Beck and with Chancellor Goerdeler, who was then just a businessman.”
“But you didn’t immediately break with the regime?”
Thomas sighed. “Winter, let’s talk like adults. If you opposed them, at best they would fire you and replace you with somebody more willing — no shortage of them. At worst they’d destroy your life, like they did with Fritsch — or have you executed for Wehrkraftzersetzung [subversion of defensive strength].”
“So you went along.”
“I kept trying to convince them this was going to be horrible. I might as well have talked to the wind.”
“What made you finally break with them?”
“When I understood we were killing people for no reason at all — killing just for the sake of killing so-called Untermenschen. That’s when I’d had enough.”
Thomas had left. One day we would settle accounts with him — now was not the time.
Not for the first time, I felt despair. The regime we had toppled had tainted nearly everything it touched. I’d never completely bought the “clean Wehrmacht” story — I’d heard too many stories from former classmates who were on leave from the Eastern front. There was no such thing as ‘clean war’ there. But I’d somehow wanted to believe that the Wehrmacht had not been this deeply involved with abominations like Generalplan Ost or the so-called “final solution of the Jewish problem”.
Colonel Hossbach had told me of a top-secret conference in late 1937 where he’d been tasked with writing down minutes. I forgot what the official reason for the meeting even was — but aside from Foreign Minister von Neurath, the Reich’s top defense leadership was there: Defense Minister Blomberg; Commander-in-Chief Generaloberst von Fritsch; and Chief of the General Staff Beck.
There, the Führer for the first time laid out the plans for his upcoming invasions. If Hossbach was to be believed, all of the others protested. And what happened to them? It was suddenly ‘discovered’ that Blomberg had remarried to a former prostitute — which was true — and that Fritsch paid Strichjunge [rent boys] — which was slander. Beck was old enough that he could be forced into retirement, and was. Hitler replaced the lot with a new OKW, headed by his loathsome lackey Keitel. Neurath, for his part, was replaced by von Ribbentrop —a former champagne salesman and fanatical Nazi who’d bought his title of nobility.
So Thomas was part right — whoever didn’t do Hitler’s bidding was replaced by someone who would. Those who stayed on ‘for damage control’? Bit by bit, they sold their souls to the devil, until they could no longer back out even if they wanted to.
A handful, all too few, snapped and became active resisters. Like Tresckow, like Stauffenberg, like Fabian. And indeed, like that enigmatic colonel whose hand I’d shaken just minutes before he’d blown himself up with Hitler and his chief henchmen.
We owed it to the nation, but especially to them, to ensure their sacrifice had not been for naught.