I had no idea when I picked this book off the library shelf that I was getting one of the finest books available on the subject. I went there looking for the history behind the movie Valkyrie, and I was surprised to find there were multiple books on the subject. I picked the most recently published based on the fact that its author would have had access to more recently discovered materials (such as diaries or letters that had been kept by the families and only made available to the public decades later).
This review of the book opines that “anything by Joachim Fest is required reading,” especially on the subject of Hitler. Fest knows his subject extremely well, and also knows how to write well. Some history books are a chore to read. This one, on the contrary, was for the most part a pleasure to read. (Brief descriptions of the some of the lesser players in the conspiracy were too short to give me a real feel for their characters, and their roles seemed too small to matter much in the larger story.)
Watching Valkyrie had taught me that there was actually a network of men committed to overthrowing Hitler, not just a few fanatics acting on their own. Plotting Hitler’s Death reveals the surprising extent of that network. It involved hundreds of people (if not thousands – certainly thousands were arrested after the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt), from various sectors of society, and the conspiracy involved not just killing Hitler but setting up a new government in place of the Nazis.
Its extent through time also surprised me. The first coup was planned in 1938, before the war even started. Ironically, it was aborted precisely because Hitler decided not to initiate hostilities yet, because the justification for the coup was supposed to be Hitler’s needlessly plunging Germany into war. The plotters also sent emissaries to contact Germany’s opponents, especially Britain, hoping to push Britain to act decisively against Hitler to forestall war. But British leaders refused to trust Germans who would go against their own government.
Fest does not oversimplify his extremely complex subject. Always before, I have read generalizations about how Hitler rose to power, primarily based on German resentment over the Germany’s humiliation at the hands of the winners of World War I, and Hitler’s using the Jews as a scapegoat for their social and economic problems. Certainly those aspects are true, but Fest explores the multiplicity of factors that gave Hitler such an unshakable grasp on power and his opponents so many missed chances and botched attempts.
One major problem for Hitler’s opponents was that they were never unified. They came from different sectors of society – the army, civil servants, students, labor union leaders, churchmen, and more. Some were very traditionalist, others wanted sweeping social and economic changes. All they really had in common was that they were convinced that Hitler was a disaster for Germany and that he must be brought down. Some wanted to kill him, but most were unwilling to take that step, whether from a moral commitment against killing, a sense of loyalty to civil leaders, or simple indecisiveness.
They really weren’t even networked all that well. Meeting to plot against the government is never easy in a police state, and the extensive planning they were able to carry out surprised me as it was. The fact that a significant number of officers in the military, especially in the military intelligence branch, had a lot to do with their getting as far as they did. They had a high tradition of honor, and Hitler’s crimes were anything but honorable. They had the training to plan and carry out secret operations, and at least in theory they preferred death to dishonor.
Yet none of their plans were successful. The July 20 attempt was their last best effort, and it came so late in the war that they knew it was only symbolic. Even if they had succeeded in killing Hitler, they knew that the Allies had already determined to accept nothing less than unconditional surrender. Still, millions of lives would have been saved by ending the war sooner.
Fest discusses a variety of reasons for their failures. Some of it was simply bad luck – though they can be faulted for developing plans that depended too heavily on circumstances beyond their control. Some of it was Hitler’s political genius, knowing just when and how to act to thwart his opponents, as well as his uncanny sense of impending danger, causing him to change his plans at the last minute. After a while, his apparent invincibility prompted a certain fatalism in his opponents, who concluded that Germany’s destiny was to suffer under Hitler as the will of God. Unlike the Nazis, Hitler’s opponents had no charismatic leader who could draw them together and show them the way to victory.
There was a tendency to prefer talk to action. One could feel very moral about discussing the necessity of removing the evil Führer and planning how it might be done, while actually carrying out the act was not only personally dangerous but an act of treason. There was the social divide between the plotters who came from the aristocracy and those who came from lower classes of society, and the ideological divide between the staunch conservatives on the one hand, and the socialists and Communists on the other. There was the disappointment with the unwillingness of any of the Allies to meet with the plotters, let alone cooperate with them.
My impression was that, more than anything, divided loyalties are what doomed the various conspiracies. Fest states that since that time, a principled opposition to the error of one’s country’s leadership has become an admired quality. But it was not so then. Career military officers took great pride in doing a professional job, even when it meant achieving military successes for a Führer they despised. Even if one has convinced oneself intellectually that overthrowing an evil regime is the right thing to do, bringing about the military defeat of one’s country feels terribly wrong.
Men would agree to take part in a plot, and then withdraw. They would decide something had to be done, but when the time came to act they stalled. Since a coup that is only partially successful is ultimately a failure, they were very reluctant to put their careful plans into action unless all the circumstances seemed right. And they never seemed right.
I wondered, watching Valkyrie, why Stauffenberg chose to proceed on July 20, 1944, despite the briefing having been moving from an airtight concrete bunker (where, he had been told, a single bomb would easily kill everyone present) to a wooden building with open windows (where the blast would be less contained and thus less destructive). Fest does not mention the bunker at all, so that may have been speculation on the part of the filmmakers. He does bring up the never answered question of why Stauffenberg used only one bomb, not two – but the conjectures about it are only conjectures. (In the hours after the explosion Stauffenberg was too busy trying to direct the coup attempt, and then being captured and executed, to explain his reasons.)
And Fest also explains how Stauffenberg and other plotters were convinced that time was running out and they absolutely had to act now. He had begun a similar attempt only days earlier, and it had been aborted, apparently due to the absence of Himmler, whom the plotters also wanted to kill, at the briefing with Hitler. There might never be another chance after July 20. Stauffenberg determined that no matter what, he was going to carry through with it that day.
If nothing else, he and his co-conspirators wanted the world to know that Hitler did not speak for all Germans. Even Hitler was surprised when he learned just how many people had been plotting against him and for how long. The plotters knew that when they were caught, they would be tried and likely executed for treason. But they planned to use their appearance in court to make public their reasons, including the many crimes against humanity that Hitler had committed. In the beginning it worked – so Hitler imposed a ban on news reporting of the trials.
I know many Americans wonder why the German people cooperated with Hitler. I think more of them should know the story of those who worked to bring about his downfall.