Ride of the Valkyrie
The Black Orchestra Mission to Kill Hitler
In the shadow of a mindless and destructive war launched out of nearly medieval delusions of grandeur, the fact that there were no fewer than 15 confirmed attempted coups and assassinations of Adolf Hitler gives us hope. Could there be a palace coup brewing somewhere in Moscow in reaction to Vladimir Putin’s deranged war in Ukraine. Perhaps, but intent is not action and the fact that none of the attempts to stop Hitler actually worked is less heartening.
Part One: Spark
It’s not pretty, but some people just need killing. And more than a few Germans thought Adolf Hitler needed to be snuffed. Apart from the general attempts to kill enlisted men during World War I, the first specific attempt to kill Hitler was in 1932, the year before he was appointed chancellor of Germany. He and his staff were dining in Berlin’s Hotel Kaiserhof when their meal was poisoned. No one died, but several of the staff were taken ill. Hitler, a vegetarian and a teetotal, missed the worst of it. But it wasn’t the man’s annoying lifestyle choices that drove Germans to try to kill him at a rate of once or twice a year for the rest of his life.
For Henning von Tresckow it was Kristalnacht or Night of Broken Glass that did it. Aided by the police, the rampage and looting aimed at Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues started on the night of 9 November 1938, supposedly in response to a German diplomat being killed in Paris by a Polish Jew. By today’s standards, Tresckow was an anti-Semite, but thought terrorizing and killing them was barbaric. He had an aristocratic sense of honor: Over the last 300 years his family had produced some 21 generals. He entered the cadet officer corps at 16 and two years later was the youngest lieutenant in the German army. Reportedly his commanding officer once told him, “”You, Tresckow, will either become the chief of the General Staff of die on the scaffold as a rebel.” Really, what’s a young officer supposed to do with that?
By 1940, Tresckow was on the staff of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, and worked to get the “Manstein Plan” adopted for the invasion of France. Manstien was himself a complex figure who, six years earlier, had helped a friend, Helmut Mylius, evade arrest by the Gestapo for his part in another failed 1934 coup against the Nazis. Unfortunately, the Manstein Plan was a roaring success, so successful that the French Army collapsed faster that the Wehrmacht – the combined German military - could advance against it. Which is saying something because the Germans moved pretty relentlessly with the help of a little pick-me-up we now call crystal meth. It’s very effective if your goal is to stay awake for three days in a hyper-aggressive fury that erases any semblance of human empathy.
With the fall of France, most of Germany was ecstatic. Der Führer was at the height of his popularity and exploited the fall ruthlessly. Tresckow saw beyond the fall of France. “If Churchill can induce America to join the war, we will slowly but surely be crushed by the material superiority.” He said at the time, “The most that will be left to us is the Electorate of Brandenburg and I’ll be the chief of the palace guard.”
Count Claus von Stauffenberg was also on hand to see the blitzkrieg make short work of France. He was another aristocratic soldier from an old family. They had a castle or two, if that tells you anything. Too young to fight in the World War I, he was devastated by the defeat and the chaos it brought. Thinking that an strong, honorable army was a stabilizing force for Germany, he joined his family’s traditional regiment, the 7th Cavalry, which in the new mechanized Wehrmacht would morph into the 9thPanzer division.
On top of being a count when that sort of thing mattered, Stauffenberg was a tall, good looking, rich and charming – which made him something of a wunderkind. A great role for someone like Tom Cruise and a milk crate to play in a movie. He was a devout Catholic – which really doesn’t sit well with this not very devout one - opposed democracy and thought the monarchy was a much better idea. Most counts do. Like Tresckow, he also thought the Jews had too much pull in banking the arts and republican politics, but stunts like Kristallnacht were a degradation to all Germans. He took part in the 1939 invasion of Poland as anti-Nazi networks started cropping up over Europe and, to a lesser extent, in Germany itself. It was there that he was first propositioned to join the resistance. Stauffenberg said “I’m not ready, yet.” He wasn’t a Nazi, but he loved the army, and like a great many of his class, thought that the war had been forced on Germany. Soon he was promoted to the General Staff in Berlin.
Meanwhile, Major-General Tresckow was promoted to chief operations officer for Army Group Centre in Operation Barbarossa, the German offensive against Russia. As terrible as the war was on the Western Front, by every conceivable metric the war in the east was much worse. For Germany, the conquest of France was not an existential issue, but a way to get the British and French out of the war to address what was perceived to be the existential problem of Eastern Europe and lebensraum (living room). The subsequent invasion was certainly an existential threat to Russia. It triggered a ferocious, total war. The locals were brutalized by the SS forces, which handled subjugation and eradications of populations. As often as not these efforts were supported by the army – but not all. Where the regular army was fighting on the front away from urban populations, it was also largely beyond the pale of Nazi establishment.
Tresckow was also busy who was also coordinating what he dubbed the schwarze kapelle (black orchestra); a group of army officers and politicians dedicated to overthrowing the regime. It was on official business that in July of 1941, Stauffenberg flew out to the Eastern Front and met with Tresckow. After a late-night game of chess to relax, the two officers had a chat.
As early 1938, Major-General Hans Oster, the Chief of Staff to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr (German military intelligence),had developed an operation to overthrow the Nazi’s - not to stop a war but to prevent it in the first place. Canaris knew about the plan, but was only bothered that Oster spent so much time planning the coup that he was neglecting his paperwork. The operation was to be triggered if Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, not because Oster thought that is was a lousy thing to do, but because doing so would trigger a war that Germany simply couldn’t win. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.
When Hitler managed to convince British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to let him have chunks of the Czecho Studetenland as a freebie, the plan was shelved. British support was instrumental for the coup and in any event the immediate threat of war seemed to recede. In October, Poland invaded Czechoslovakia and Hitler, always a better opportunist than strategist, was left looking like a master statesman.
In 1939, Canaris recruited a lawyer from the justice department, Hans von Dohnanyi, to work for him. Dohnanyi was troubled by his work for the Nazi government but his brother-in-law, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said it was better to subvert the regime from within. Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister, was facing conscription into the army, so Canaris hired him too. In May of 1942 the anti-Nazi cadre within the Abwehr sent Bonhoeffer to Stockholm to meet George Bell, Bishop of Chichester and member of the House of Lords, and tell him that there was a coup in the offing and could Britain not take military advantage of the ensuing instability to occupy Germany. The UK Government refused to make hypothetical commitments. That plan was scrapped as well.
The Strange thing about so many of the assassination and coup attempts against the Hitler was how openly they were discussed within their circles. The conspiracy minded had developed a code for identifying each other, but even when officers wanted no part of a plot, they didn’t seem turn anyone in. As long as no one spoke of it to the SS or the Gestapo, not much happened. So when Tresckow and Stauffenberg met on the front they discussed the war and the Nazi’s and agreed that Hitler was bent on wrecking not just Europe but Germany as well. Still, Stauffenberg wasn’t ready to join the conspiracy. Into early 1942 he was convinced that the Eastern Front could be held and there was the question of lebensraum. However, he was outraged by the treatment of Russian civilians in occupied territory. It was in May, after hearing rumors, that Stauffenberg got his first eyewitness report of mass murder of the Jews by the SS Einsatzgruppen – the Mobile Killing Units. Horrified, Stauffenberg swung quickly to the conspirators. “They are shooting Jews in masses,” he told another officer, “These crimes cannot be allowed to continue.” He became so vocal that even the conspiratorial schwarze kapelle thought it would be better if the count went away before he got them all arrested and shot.
Which is how the dashing count found himself in North Africa with the 10th Panzer division. If he was becoming disillusioned with the war, his timing didn’t help. He showed up right as Erwin “Desert Fox” Rommel’s Afrika Korp was getting crushed between British and newly arrived American forces. There Stauffenberg was seriously injured, losing his right hand, two fingers on his left and his left eye.
In the winter of 1942, Tresckow finished planning Operation Spark - thus named because it was to "spark" the coup that would bring the Nazi madness to an end. He’d been working on it since 1940, but he needed General Fredrich Olbricht, chief of the General Army Office, to get the reserve army to secure Berlin on news of Der Führer’s death. It took time. That’s German planning for you.
When Tresckow learned that Hitler was coming to visit Smolensk the conspirators set the plan in motion. It was more theatrical than clever: All the involved officers surrounding Der Führer in the mess hall and shooting him full of holes a la Julius Caesar. It was scratched when the commanding officer, Field Marshall Güther von Kluge decided that the only thing the operation would likely “spark” is a civil war between the SS and the Wehrmacht. Kluge told the conspirators to cut it out, and dropped the matter without informing the Gestapo.
Deciding that it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, Tresckow initiated his back-up plan: a bottle of Cointreau. True, Hitler wasn’t a drinker, but there wasn’t any liquor in the bottle. It had been fitted with plastic explosives and an acid-activated time fuse. Tresckow told one Lt. Colonel Heinz Brandt, traveling with Hitler, that he’d lost a bet to General Stieff and would Brant be good enough to cart the winnings back to HQ? He agreed and, damn the luck, actually got the bottle safely gat to HQ after the low temperatures in the unheated baggage compartment prevented the fuse from working properly. One of the conspirators was sent to HQ to fetch the “bottle” on some pretext that soldiers like and no one, including General Stieff, was any the wiser.
A week later, one Colonel Rudolp-Christoph Gersdorff, Tresckow’s Abwehr liaison officer, was scheduled to act as guide for Hitler at an event in Berlin. Gersdorff decided to strap a bomb to himself and suicide vest the thing. It was a simple plan, conceived on such short notice that no one had time to given it a snazzy name. At the last minute, Hitler’s schedule shifted and his time at the event went from 30 minutes to eight – which is a problem with a pre-set fuse. Again, Hitler lopped off unaware and Gersdorff only just managed to get the bomb defused before it painted the platz with his innards.
All along, that cadre within the Abwehr had been moving Jews out of German to Switzerland – often masquerading as intelligence officer so it was the SS that got them through. A lot has been made of the shabby performance by German intelligence during World War II. We know that by about 1943 all assets in Britain had been turned to the allied cause and were acting as double agents. Given that the organization was riddled, literally from the top slot, it may not have been mere incompetence.
Nor was the Gestapo incompetent. In April of 1943 they finally caught up with Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer. The two were arrested for their efforts and “interviewed.” Oster was dismissed, not for involvement in the plot, but for letting it happen. He was later put under house arrest. It wasn’t until after Valkyrie that he was discovered to be involved in the scheme. Still, those arrests were problematic. Despite what you see in the movies, everyone will eventually break under torture. What they say however, is anyone’s guess. So the noose appeared to be closing on the schwarze kapelle.