The Oster Conspiracy (1)

Hans-Oster_557040c45ced1All conspiracies except two were pretty much limited to murdering (let’s be frank) Adolf Hitler. Even the Wehrmacht generals in 1943 who developed and (almost) executed assassination attempts on Hitler’s life, had a rather vague idea of what to do after Der Führer is gone.

Only two plots were well-thought plans for genuine military coups – i.e. the very much hostile takeover of Germany, demolition of the Nazi regime and establishment of a military dictatorship (Ludendorff-Hindenburg style) or – believe it or not – semi-civilian government (Weimar style – sort of).

The first such plot was almost launched at the very end of September of 1938. English-speaking audience knows it by the name of Oster Conspiracy – after then Oberstleutnant (subsequently Generalmajor) Hans Oster – the informal leader of the conspirators.

The German-speaking audience uses (IMHO) a far more accurate term – Septemberverschwörung (September Conspiracy), because Oster was – let’s be honest – not the one who was calling the shots.

I would give this plot a very different name, however – the Halder Conspiracy of 1938. For three key reasons – (1) Oster was just an officer in the Abwehr – German military intelligence and did not have sufficient manpower and firepower at his disposal to execute a successful military coup; (2) the guy who had both was Franz Halder – Chief of Staff of OKH – the High Command of the German Army; and (3) the drive behind the whole conspiracy was Halder’s fear of the war and the determination to prevent the war with Britain and France by any means that would do the job.

Including murdering his boss – Adolf Hitler. But only if it was the only way to prevent the disastrous (in Halder’s opinion) war with Britain and France (and possibly with the Soviet Union as well).

It was Halder who ordered the conspirators to plan the coup down to the last and smallest detail. Leaving the day and time of launching the coup to himself, of course (so much for Oster’s leadership).

In his opinion, the right moment would be when Hitler issues orders to invade Czechoslovakia (the Führer did not believe that war-weary Britain, France – or even the USSR for that matter – would intervene). Then Halder (who firmly believed in exactly the opposite) would issue counter-orders – and instead of Prague, the Wehrmacht would (hopefully) march on Berlin.

To hedge their bets (always a good idea), Oster & Co. developed an alternative plan for a military coup (unlike Halder, they wanted to get rid of Hitler regardless of whether Hitler decided to go to war with its Eastern neighbor).

So they brought into the conspiracy several more high-ranking Wehrmacht officers – Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel (Halder’s deputy in the General Staff), Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (head of Abwehr), General Georg Thomas (a competent economist and a Chief of Staff for the Army Weapons Office) and the commander of Greater Berlin defense district General Erwin von Witzleben.

The latter was the most valuable (by far) because, unlike the others who pretty much commanded their desks, he had some serious troops under his command. Serious enough for a successful military coup, that is.

Von Witzleben brought with him several more highly valuable asset – commander of the Potsdam Division, Lt. Gen. Walter von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt; Maj. Gen. Paul von Hase, a junior commander who had more troops at his disposal and Lt. Gen. Erich Hoepner, commander of an armored division in Thuringia who provided the conspirators with critically important weapons – the tanks.

Obviously, Halder was made aware of (and approved) the participation of the abovementioned officers in de-facto his coup. However, he was seriously (and understandably) bothered by a very natural question: What next? What exactly would happen after the assassination of Adolf Hitler and destruction of the Nazi regime. What kind of future do Oster & Co. have in store for his beloved Germany?

He complained to Oster:

“The putsch and the assassination that will remove Hitler is only the negative side. Every person interested in the fate of his nation has to be concerned also with the positive side. What will happen afterward? No one told me anything about it. The soldiers were only asked to ‘clean the place,’ like housemaids, but what will be in the room afterward?

Conspirators, indeed, did not have a sufficiently detailed vision of Germany’s future – they agreed only on some very basics. After Hitler’s removal, the country would be run by a military dictatorship for a short transition period, followed by the restoration of the rule of law.

The SS and Gestapo would be (obviously) outlawed, and a short while afterward elections would be held according to the old Weimar constitution (the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act would be annulled, of course). Hjalmar Schacht (who was very much a part of this conspiracy) even mentioned a parliamentary government at some point, though most conspirators favored an authoritarian regime, perhaps even a restoration of the monarchy.

Like the conspirators in July 20th plot six years later (many of whom were exactly the same faces), the September plotters had very different visions of what to do with Adolf Hitler.

Although he accepted that it might have had to be done, Halder (who de-facto called all the shots) strongly opposed an assassination (maybe because he feared a new “stab in the back” legend that would stigmatize him as a murderer) and proposed instead arresting the Führer and putting him on public trial.

Which, IMHO, proved only that Franz Halder was totally clueless about the attitude of Germans towards Hitler in 1938 (instead of letting Halder at all try Hitler in a court of law, Germans would have lynched them all right then and there).

Goerdeler, who opposed assassination on religious grounds (he would continue to do so six years later as wee), probably supported the public-trial option as well. Dr. Hans von Dohnanyi, an anti-Nazi jurist and prominent Abwehr conspirator had a slightly different plan.

To stage a medical committee that would declare Hitler insane and order him to be locked up in a mental institution. Which in reality would have had the same result – public lynching of all conspirators by ferociously angry Germans.

Hans Oster and a few other conspirators had a far more realistic understanding of the situation. They understood that Hitler’s charisma and his immense popularity among military and civilians alike was the cement binding the Third Reich together and hence as long as he was alive, Nazism would survive.

Therefore, a coup could succeed only if Hitler is assassinated before everything else. So a “conspiracy within the conspiracy” was developed that had but one objective – kill Hitler by executing the “special of” without Halder’s knowledge (or informing other co-conspirators beforehand).

 

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