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International Socialist Review, Summer 1959


Trent Hutter

Plot to Kill Hitler


From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.3, Summer 1959, pp.94-95.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Officers Plot to Kill Hitler
by Constantine FitzGibbon
Avon Publications, New York. 222 pp. (Abridged.) 35 cents.

This pocket edition of Constantine FitzGibbon’s book (July 20) about the memorable 1944 plot that failed is useful for its compilation of facts. But it should be read critically: the author’s ideology resembles that of the conspirators, who were bourgeois conservative in outlook. Like them she holds to the notion that the Nazi regime could be toppled by army commanders and other key officials without the active intervention of the masses.

The plot was no last-minute attempt by opportunists faced with Germany’s defeat. It started as early as 1938, before the outbreak of World War II. General Beck, former chief of the general staff, was one of its main inspirers. All were conservatives, afraid of a second World War “bound to result in the destruction of Europe” and from which “Bolshevism alone would profit,” as Beck told French General Gamelin in July 1937. Generals Beck, von Witzleben, Karl Heinrich von Stulpnagel, Hammerstein and Hoepner were in alliance with the former mayor of Leipzig, Dr. Karl Goerdeler, an ultra-conservative puritan disgusted with Nazi economic policy, corruption and extremism.

While Goerdeler rejected concessions to the working class, some of the most important conspirators favored class collaboration with “structural” social reforms. In case of success, Goerdeler was to have become Chancellor of the Reich; but reform-minded intellectuals would also have been represented in the government coalition, and their political ideas dominated the conspiracy because it seemed obvious that the old conservative concepts needed face-lifting if social revolution were to be prevented. In the last resort it was precisely the prevention of “Bolshevism,” the maintenance of bourgeois rule, that the plotters had in mind. In this they were like the leaders of bourgeois resistance organizations in the occupied countries.

It is not surprising that the so-called Kreisau Group which shaped the conspiracy’s political, economic and social outlook consisted not only of bourgeois intellectuals, landowners, Protestant clergymen, Jesuits, right-wing politicians, diplomats, but also of several Social-Democratic reformists: Reichwein, Mierendorff, Haubach, and Leber. Once again, the reformists functioned as “leftist” cover for bourgeois policies. They were needed to keep the workers quiet; for the conspirators dreaded a mass upheaval.

The appeals prepared for the “revolution from above” reveal that the German bourgeois resistance was somewhat to the right of the bourgeois resistance in occupied Europe. The Reichstag would have been elected by the state parliaments, not directly by the people. Civil rights were to be restored, the concentration camps abolished, political prisoners freed, war criminals punished. The conspirators condemned the Nazis’ anti-Semitic measures; yet they insisted on the “Christian” character of the future Reich and the eminent role to be played by the two big Churches. They came out for complete freedom of belief and conscience and for the restitution of confiscated property to the Jews; but it is not certain that the Jews would have enjoyed political equality under their projected regime.

As for economic reform, the conspirators wanted to nationalize the key industries, dissolve monopolies and encourage an “orderly competition to be supervised by the state.” Close co-operation between plant owners and workers, “co-determination” and “profit-sharing” were to exist in the factories.

To save bourgeois rule a Utopian reform of German capitalism was thus envisaged; but the structure of industry alone was to be modified, not the structure of agriculture. Although Count von Moltke turned over a large part of his lands to the peasants, the Kreisau Group as a whole were anxious not to offend the big landlord families.

The plotters firmly believed they were serving not their class alone but the entire German nation. And who can deny that Count von Stauffenberg, General Oster, other officers like von Tresckow, aristocratic intellectuals like von Moltke, even the narrow-minded, foolhardy Goerdeler showed genuine courage and were ready to risk their lives? Most of the conspirators died; in fact, after horrible tortures by Hitler’s Gestapo and SS.

The culmination of the plot was no last-minute enterprise. Only fringe conspirators came in toward the end of the war: Marshal Rommel (who also paid with his life), General Speidel, his chief-of-staff and today the head of the West German Army.

Army leaders like Field Marshall von Manstein cowardly pretended to be bound by oath sworn to Hitler but would have joined the plotters in case of success. Von Rundstedt preferred to await what would happen. Von Kluge was torn between awareness of Germany’s defeat, veneration for Hitler, and fear.

Oster, von Tresckow, and Count von Stauffenberg planned and staged several attempts to kill the Fuhrer. Plans for action had already been considered in 1939-40. These were stepped up after the beginning of the Russian campaign. Owing to the Gestapo’s vigilance and especially to Hitler’s luck all the attempts failed. In March 1943, in Smolensk, von Tresckow and his companions came close to success, but the dictator escaped almost miraculously: the bomb on his plane did not explode. And on the fateful July 20, at the Fuhrer’s headquarters in Rastenburg (East Prussia), von Stauffenberg’s bomb, despite the experiments and calculations, did not kill Hitler when it went off.

“Operation Valkyrie,” the officers’ revolt of July 20, was the last and decisive attempt. Count von Stauffenberg’s plan, involving the use of the Home Army, was ingenious, but it had some flaws, too.

The plotters never set up any cells in key factories and the public services. They never used their reformist allies Leuschner, Leber, and Reichwein to prepare appeals to the working class. Everything was entrusted to the Wehrmacht. Everything hinged on Hitler’s assassination. But the Wehrmacht’s commanders, learning that Hitler was alive, refused to revolt and repudiated the conspirators.

Constantine FitzGibbon claims it would have been impossible to mobilize the working class under the Gestapo’s nose. In her opinion, the “revolution from above” was the only realistic possibility under the circumstances. No one denies that it was extremely difficult and dangerous to organize any labor resistance in the Third Reich. But it proved to be just as difficult and dangerous to carry out a “revolution from above.” And it failed. The author says it failed because Hitler was not killed and because of the conspirators’ blunders in Berlin. But it does not occur to her that the very fact that these two factors could cause failure points to something much bigger.

The German bourgeoisie realized by 1944 that Germany had lost the war, but apathetically accepted useless slaughter and terror rather than back up the plotters. Intent on barring any working-class action, the military conspirators and the Kreisau Group entrusted the Germany bourgeoisie with a mission it was unable to fulfill.

If the plot had succeeded, the war would probably have been shortened by Germany’s earlier surrender. The many thousands of human beings who were to perish in the concentration camps, on the battlefields, and in the massive bombing of German cities in 1944-45 would have been saved, the near-atomization of the German working class in 1945 avoided. But history is concerned with what happened and why rather than with what might have been if ...

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