On July 20, 1944, Germans appalled by the moral depravity of the Nazi regime, made the last of many attempts -- going back to before the Second World War -- to remove Hitler from power. A bomb was detonated in Hitler’s bunker and a military coup set in motion. Because Hitler survived the blast, the plot failed. The conspirators were arrested, tortured and killed, but they should not be forgotten.
I wrote my PhD about one of those conspirators, General Friedrich Olbricht. In addition, based on a decade of research and hundreds of interviews, I wrote a novel that tells the story of these brave individuals who risked their lives to fight against one of history’s most dangerous and oppressive regimes from the inside: Hitler’s Demons.
Here is an excerpt from that novel describing the hero’s decision to join the conspiracy.It was raining the next morning, which encouraged them to stay in bed. They called room service for breakfast, and lay in bed talking and making love alternately until the sun came out about noon. Then they decided to go down for lunch and take a walk. They bathed, dressed and went downstairs. It was a mistake.
Sauckel and the men meeting with him had just started their lunch break. The lobby was awash with brown uniforms, and the unfortunate other guests passing in and out felt compelled to raise their arms and bark “Heil Hitler!” Philip’s mood was instantly shattered. Alix watched with concern and growing sense of helplessness as his face closed and his lips grew thin.In the dining room there was not one table free, and the waiter offered to seat them at a table for four at which one man was sitting alone. As it was already quite late and the lone man was a civilian, Philip agreed. They were taken over by the waiter and introduced themselves. The man stood, bowed to Alexandria, and shook hands with Philip. “Heinrich Froehlich,” he introduced himself, “Chief of Personnel at Siemens.”
“And what brings you to Baden-Baden?” Philip asked politely.“The gentlemen behind us,” the businessman answered candidly. “If we aren’t to be starved of labor, I have to ensure the goodwill of Sauckel and his underlings. That can’t be done nowadays without personal contact – and, of course, the appropriate payments.”
“Bribes, you mean,” Philip corrected acidly.The businessman shrugged. “It’s the way it is.”
From the neighboring tables, the conference participants complained about the lack of fresh strawberries and the limitations of the wine menu. Philip lost his appetite, and there was nothing Alexandra could do but cut lunch short and depart.Outside, Alexandra took her husband’s hand and smiled at him, trying to break through his gloom. He smiled back, but it was an absent smile – an alibi, while his thoughts lingered elsewhere. They walked hand in hand through the park, Alexandra chatting to distract Philip. He made an effort to listen, but after a while he gave up and admitted, “Alix, I can’t stand it. Even here everything has been poisoned by that brown filth.” He indicated the benches with the “for Aryans only” painted on them, the troop of little boys in the uniform of the Jungvolk, and the SS soldiers opening the doors of the black Mercedes disgorging brown-uniformed passengers and “glamorous” women before the Casino.
“Is this what so many men are dying for out there? A Germany where only the corrupt have power? Where helpless patients are murdered and young girls are turned into whores by the nations ‘leaders’? Is this what Christian and I are supposed to die for?” He was looking at his wife as if he expected her to give him an answer.Alexandra’s first reaction was sheer panic. How could she answer such a question? But if she didn’t find an answer, their precious time together was going to be ruined by the oppressive shadow of the regime. Then she realized that she did have an answer: she had to tell him about Valkyrie. She had to tell him that decent people were working to put an end to this rule of terror. She had to share with him the reason she felt hopeful for the future. She had to tell him what she was risking, or their whole marriage would be based on a lie.
But she was afraid he might not approve of what she was doing. She avoided his sharp, penetrating eyes by putting her arms around him and leaning her head on his chest. “No, Philip,” she whispered, “it’s not what you are meant to die for. The war has to be stopped….”Philip took her words for a helpless attempt to deny reality. He tightened his arms around her, ashamed of himself for ruining her honeymoon. Alexandra clung to him; her heart beating rapidly. She was suddenly very, very afraid of Philip’s reaction. Philip could sense her fear, and he assumed it was just his talk of death. He gently tried to pry Alexandra away from his chest so he could look into her face, but she resisted tenaciously. He would have had to use more force than he was willing to use with her, so he gave up and said, “Forgive me.”
“It’s not that. It’s…”Philip asked gently, “What is it, Alex? Tell me.”
“I have a confession to make.”“I’m listening,” he waited, holding her patiently.
“Philip,” she started in a timid voice, very frightened that he would angrily order her to stop her activities. If he did that, she would never forgive him. “General Olbricht asked me to type up some top-secret plans – plans for putting down a forced laborers’ revolt or to eliminate an enemy commando raid in the center of Berlin. But that’s not what they’re really about….” He voice faded away, afraid to be more articulate.Philip hesitated and then asked sharply, “Is Tresckow part of these plans?”
“Yes, but I don’t know Oberst Tresckow’s role. There are lots of things I don’t know. I don’t know the names of the civilians who are working on the plans for what comes afterwards. I don’t know what Admiral Canaris and Oberst Oster have to do with things. And although I know that Oberst Tresckow is kept informed of developments, I don’t know why. The plans themselves are being worked out in AHA.”
Philip had stopped breathing. Then speaking very slowly and softly, he told her: “Tresckow wants me to help him with these plans…. Would you approve of that?”Alexandra looked up, hardly daring to believe her ears. Philip wasn’t just willing to let her continue; he would be part of it. They would be working together. “Of course!”
“What do you mean ‘of course’? We’re talking about me breaking my oath and committing High Treason!” he rebuked her.“It may be treason against the government, but not against the nation, Philip. We’re talking about putting an end to the murder of innocent people and stopping the senseless sacrifice of others – like Christian and Stefan.”
“Only if we succeed. The chances of success are pitiable.”“Maybe. Personally, I think General Olbricht is brilliant. And the supplementary orders – things like closing the Concentration Camps and the arrest of Gauleiter – are being handled by Uncle Erich and Generaloberst Beck.”
“Beck? Generaloberst Ludwig Beck is involved?” Philip took as step back, holding Alexandra at arm’s length and searching her face intently.She nodded, meeting his eyes. “Olbricht always refers to him as the CO of the Operation.”
“Beck, Olbricht, Hoepner, Tresckow – good company to die in.” Philip managed a little twitch of his lips as if he were trying to smile.“Better than for the Fuehrer,” Alexandra insisted.
“There’s a difference. On the front I die alone. As a traitor, I drag you down with me.”“I’m already there, Philip.”
“No, you’re not. As Olbricht’s secretary, you can always say you were just doing your job – following orders. You can claim you never had any reason to think the plans went beyond their official purpose. But if I join this conspiracy, they’ll never believe that. You’ll pay the same price as I. You could be tried for treason and beheaded.”In an impulsive and passionate gesture, Alexandra reached up and took Philip’s head in her hands. She went on tiptoe to kiss him. “That you would hesitate on my account is flattering, but I can’t love you because you’re a man of conscience and character, and then expect you to behave like an opportunist. In the midst of so much death, I want to believe there is something worth dying for, and you can’t go on as you have been. You can’t continue to serve a criminal regime without it destroying you. Don’t you see, Philip? Only this can give our lives meaning.”
“What about our love?”“What chance has our love in a world poisoned by moral depravity on this scale? Just think of the last two days: all our love couldn’t change the world around us, and it has ruined our wedding. Without hope for a better future, why should we go on living at all – much less have children?”
She was right, Philip realized with a touch of surprise. How could he have been so stupid? She was right, and so was Tresckow. The fight against the Nazis was not a military operation, which should only be risked if the chance of success was better than 50/50. Joining this conspiracy was the only means of saving his sanity -- and soul.