The Oster Conspiracy (2)

Witzleben_ErwinThe overall assassination plan was developed (no surprise here) by ardent anti-Nazi (and probably the most radical member of the military Resistance) Hans Oster. As he was busy with the overall planning of the coup, he left the operational details to two his associates, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz and Franz Maria Liedig.

These young officers, dedicated resistance fighters and former members of a right-wing Freikorps militia (happens), were prepared to do anything to put an end to the Nazi regime.

Especially Herr Heinz, who began his career as a notorious terrorist during the Weimar Republic and became a fanatical Nazi thug. The Nazis found him too fanatical (yes, such things did happen) and promptly expelled him from the Party.

Wrong decision. As it happens more often than not, rejection by his comrades-in-arms transformed him from an ardent Nazi into a committed (and quite vicious) opponent of the regime.

The methods he advocated remained the same as used during the days of his Nazi youth: violence, terror, and assassination. Unlike most members of the Oster clique – initially loyal civil servants who found their way to the resistance after much hesitation and misgiving, Heinz was a born revolutionary. For him, the underground was a way of life. This was definitely a guy who you do not want to have as your enemy.

Not surprisingly, it was Heinz whom Oster tasked with creating a dedicated special op unit. “Commando Heinz” which numbered about sixty men in all, was assembled at breathtaking speed, its soldiers armed by Oster using weapons from Abwehr supplies (what else).

Supervised by Abwehr officers (by that time already well-trained in special ops), they encompassed all types of characters: armed civilians, right-wing activists with revolutionary pasts, student leaders, and (of course) former soldiers.

Formation of the unit was completed around September 15th. It was spread among several safe houses around Berlin, and was waiting for a sign from Oster. Its job was to arrest Hitler and the Nazi leaders after Witzleben’s troops took over the capital. Heinz and Liedig, with Oster’s consent, planned to kill Hitler (I suspect that not only Hitler) during the operation under the pretext that he would resisting arrest.

Only four individuals knew about this plot – Oster, Heinz, Liedig and von Witzleben (even the members of “Commando Heinz” did not know their final objective).

Witzleben’s troops were to be supported by Berlin police force led by Count Wolf von Helldorff (Police President of Berlin) and – surprise, surprise – head of the Kripo (national criminal police) SS-Gruppenführer (!) Arthur Nebe.

The latter appeared to be permanently confused of whether he wanted to serve the Nazi regime – or bring it down. Ultimately he chose the latter – with disastrous consequences for himself.

The timing of the coup was as follows. Halder predicted that the mobilization plans would be laid before him at least three days before the outbreak of the war which would have given the conspirators ample time to make the last necessary preparations for the coup.

As soon as he received the marching order from Hitler. Halder would instruct Witzleben to launch the coup. The troops of Brockdorff and Hase would occupy the capital, laying siege to the government quarter (supported by Hoepner’s tanks and srmored vehicles).

Helldorff and Nebe guaranteed that police will either support the coup or (more likely) remain neutral. On July 20th, 1944 the latter was the case. “Commando Heinz” would spring out of their hideouts, storm the government buildings, arrest (and, most likely, kill) the Nazi leaders.

Simultaneously, the conspirators would take over the radio stations. Their broadcast to the people would explain that they were only keeping public order and repressing a revolt of SS and Gestapo elements. Which means that the famous Operation Valkyrie was designed six years prior to when it was actually launched.

A martial law would be declared, followed by a new government, possibly a monarchy (former Crown Prince Wilhelm apparently gave his consent to become the next Kaiser).

The biggest question is: Did Himmler know? Just about all mainstream historians are confident that he did not. They claim that the Gestapo (i.e. Himmler) new nothing about this conspiracy, even many years later. That had to do, in part, with the close-knit structure of the conspiratorial network.

In 1938, the military resistance group was a small circle of close friends and relatives, mostly of elite background. This made betrayal very unlikely. It also had to do with unbelievable negligence on the Gestapo’s part as far as traditional elites – the nobility and the army – were concerned.

Practically all resources of the secret police were spent on endless persecution of the networks of the beaten left, which they still considered the greatest threat to the regime. And of the Jews, of course – the Nazis (incorrectly) believed that they were fighting an existential racial war with the “Jewish race” (which existed only in their imagination).

The right and the traditional elites were not considered such a menace, even though in reality that was where the real danger to National Socialism lay. This negligence of the dreaded Nazi secret police was to be a persistent phenomenon that allowed the conspirators to survive and work until July 20, 1944.

I beg to disagree. Heinrich Himmler was an extremely talented, clever, skilled and experienced political operation who not only survived but was astoundingly successful in a cutthroat world of Nazi politics (Hitler’s Führerstaat was designed to create a ruthless competition at every level where only the fittest, the strongest and the most powerful would survive and succeed).

Risk management skills are absolutely essential for success; besides, Himmler was in a state security business which means that he had to know what happens before it happens.

It is also well-known that the conspirators were quite careless about concealing their illegal activities (which ultimately got Oster – and not just Oster – arrested). And Heydrich’s SD was very probably the most extensive and efficient domestic intelligence services in the world with informers everywhere – to the very top.

Consequently, it is much more likely than not that Himmler knew (or had at least a general idea) of both the September’38 plot and its July’44 clone. Knew – and chose to do nothing about it. For a very simple reason – his loyalty to Adolf Hitler was a skillfully crafted and supported myth.

In reality, Himmler considered himself an aristocrat far superior to Adolf Hitler in just about everything (especially in education – which was obviously true). Besides, he had his own vision of the Third Reich that was very different from Hitler’s (and which he very much wanted to make a reality).

By 1938, his SS was already a “state within a state” (fiercely loyal to him – not to Adolf Hitler); he was in command of all German security services; he all but controlled the German economy (via the “Circle of Friends of SS-Reichsfuhrer”)… hey, he even already had his own armed forces.

In his opinion, he was ready to take over Germany… if only he could figure out how to get Hitler out of the way. So I am confident that in September of 1938 (and in July of 1944) he had a quite realistic plan to take over the Reich after the generals (or “Commando Heinz”) did the dirty job for him.

And not just “Plan A”, but “Plan B”. “Plan C”, etc., etc. – he was obsessive about even the minute details and about planning for every imaginable contingency.

It is a well-known fact that Oster’s “partners-in-crime” (their actions and plans were, indeed, a capital crime according to the German law) contacted the British government officials on literally dozens of occasions trying to secure their assistance (or at least) cooperation. To no avail – all his offers were either rejected outright or (at best) ignored.

It is a much less-known fact that Heinrich Himmler’s emissaries made very similar proposals – only to the American government. Which ultimately reacted in about the same way as the British (joint business ventures were a different matter entirely).

The USA and Britain (and their intelligence services) were very close so it is no surprise that the latter knew about Himmler’s proposals to their American friends. They also knew of at least some contacts between the civilian opposition to Hitler and Himmler’s associates (probably inevitable in Nazi Germany – and another source of information about the plans of the former for Heinrich Himmler).

Hence they could not figure out (as one British official bluntly put it) “where the opposition ends and Heinrich Himmler begins” – especially given the fact that the foreign policy objectives of the plotters were in many cases identical to Hitler’s. Which probably was another reason behind their decision not to have any relationship with German resistance.

On the evening of September 26th, Adolf Hitler and gave Czechoslovakia a deadline of 2:00 pm on September 28th, to cede the Sudetenland to Germany or face war. Not knowing that with this ultimatum he all but signed his death warrant.

In early morning of September 28th (eight hours or so before the deadline) Hans Oster (or possibly von Witzleben who far outranked him), convinced that the ultimatum will be rejected and thus the war with Britain and France will inevitably start in a matter of hoursordered Captain Heinz to prepare for an assault of the Nazi government.

Heinz ordered his men to leave their safe houses and gather in the army high command. He distributed rifles, ammunition, and hand grenades, which he had received from Oster and Canaris.

Everything was ready for the assault. Heinz was told that when his men stormed the chancellery, they would be greeted by Erich Kordt, a resistance agent in the foreign ministry, who would open the doors to them.

On the same day, the conspirators secured (or so it seemed) a crucial ally. Gen. Walther von Brauchitsch, commander in chief of the army and usually an obedient servant of the Nazi regime, firmly believed that the war with the Western powers (and very possibly with the USSR as well) would mean the end of Germany. Hence he was all but ready to support the coup.

And then everything fell apart. Britain and France (joined by Fascist Italy and supported by the United States), accepted the German ultimatum. First, the deadline was moved forwards by 24 hours, then Hitler accepted Chamberlain’s proposal four-power conference of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy in Munich on 29 September to settle the Sudeten problem prior to the deadline of 2:00pm.

Then (quite predictably), a deal was reached on 29 September, and at about 1:30 a.m. on 30 September 1938, Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier signed the now-infamous Munich Agreement.

According to the agreement the German army was to immediately begin the occupation of the Sudetenland and complete it by 10 October, and an international commission would decide the future of other disputed areas.

Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to the prescribed annexations. The Czechoslovak government, realizing the hopelessness of fighting the Nazis alone, reluctantly capitulated (on September 30th) and agreed to abide by the agreement that it was not even a part of. The Providence saved Adolf Hitler from all but certain death – again.

This time (again) it was a close call. A very close call. More than six years later, Franz Halder told the international tribunal at Nuremberg,

“I had already passed the order to Witzleben for starting the coup when the information reached us that Chamberlain and Daladier were [accepting the ultimatum and] coming to Munich and, therefore, I had to withdraw my order”

Proving that it was, indeed, Halder’s conspiracy, not Oster’s. After the news of the signing of the Munich Agreement became public, the heartbroken conspirators met in Witzleben’s apartment and put the plans for the coup in the fireplace.

There they burned, along with a great deal of hope and self-confidence of the conspirators. Never again would they have at their disposal an armored division, a friendly commander in Berlin, shock troops, and a sympathetic chief of staff.

Gisevius and Oster had to quietly dissolve Commando Heinz’s shock troop unit. They would never be able to reassemble it. Its soldiers dispersed all over the country and later performed various military functions during the war.

All that was left, was hope that sometime in the future, a genuinely miraculous chain of events will create an opportunity to plan and execute another coup. That they the Fate will give them the second chance.

And it did – a little less than six years later, in hot July of 1944. However, that time the conspirators will be not nearly as powerful as in September of 1938.

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