Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Planning a Coup 1942

 While many isolated individuals remained vehement opponents of Hitler, as long as Hitler was enjoying near bloodless victories and expanding German power, wealth and territory, it was impossible to consider a coup against him. It was not until the Wehrmacht stalled and was temporarily thrown back in the winter of 1941/1942 that Hitler's bitter opponents started to hope the time might come when they could strike. Planing for such a strike started surprisingly early, when the German army was still on the offensive in the Soviet Union and North Africa.

In the years following the "September Conspiracy," Hitler went from success to success. His regime swallowed the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 – although this was not ethnically German.  He ordered the invasion of Poland just six months later, and a significantly larger army was crushed in just weeks.  In April 1940 his armed forces walked into Denmark and Norway, overwhelming the ill-prepared defences of both neutral countries.  Then in May/June 1940 Hitler pulled off the miraculous: his Third Reich conquered Belgium and Holland in just days, threw the British Expeditionary Force off the Continent in weeks, and forced the French to surrender in little more than a month of fighting.  Hitler controlled the Continent of Europe from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea.  Never had a dictator been so popular, even adored, and there were many who latter joined the Resistance to Hitler – most notably Claus Graf Stauffenberg – who were so euphoric about the dictator's successes that they dismissed all his "minor" faults as irrelevant.

But not everyone in German shared this adulation of Hitler.  A tiny minority of Germans retained their moral principles and their abhorrence of the immoral Nazi regime.  They had no opportunity to take action against the oppressive dictatorship, however, as long as Hitler remained so successful and so popular.

Then in June 1941 came the invasion of the Soviet Union.  Although this campaign was widely popular and initially went very well, by October the offensive started to bog down.  By the start of December 1941, it had failed to reach either Moscow or St. Petersberg.  On 6 December 1944, the Soviet Army opened a massive counter-offensive with fresh troops just brought in from the Urals and beyond.  They exposed the extreme over-extension and exhaustion of the German Wehrmacht, rolling the German front hundreds of kilometers backwards.  
The retreating troops were confronted – often for the first time – with the atrocities committed behind their lines by the SS. The evidence of mass murders, the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war, and the military setback soon created a different psychological environment inside Germany.  Those who had always opposed the Nazis, men like Ludwig Beck and Friedrich Olbricht, saw the first glimmer of hope that a coup against the Nazis might gain sufficient popular support to have a chance of success.

In the winter of 1941/1942 General Friedrich Olbricht, the highly decorated and audacious commander of the 24th Infantry Division, found himself trapped in a desk job in Berlin. 

General Friedrich Olbricht in Poland 1939

He was now the Chief of the "General Army Office" (GAO) – a central office with responsibility for recruiting, organizing, arming, equipping, clothing, and otherwise providing for the replacements that were sent to the now voracious front.  This position gave him command of no combat troops, but it did put him in a position to oversee practically everything the military was up to inside Germany.  Olbricht convinced the Chief of Counter Intelligence, Admiral Canaris, to convince Hitler that there was a serious threat of revolt on the part of the millions of slave labourers imported to work in the Reich from all the occupied territories.  Hitler in response ordered the Home Army (and hence Olbricht) to develop a General Staff plan for suppressing such an uprising.  The plan was given the code name "Valkyrie."

Decades later, Axel von dem Bussche, a man who would later volunteer to become a suicide bomber in order to eliminate Hitler, spoke with enthusiasm and admiration of his first encounter with "Valkyrie."  

Axel von dem Bussche in 1942

Bussche by early 1942 was already an opponent of Hitler.  He was warned by a family friend (who was also an opponent of the Nazis) that he was to obey any orders he got from a "certain" General Olbricht.  Bussche was a 1st Lieutenant at the time; Olbricht was a "three star" general. Since it was obvious to Bussche that he did not need specific instructions from a friend to follow the military orders of a general, he understood perfectly that the "orders" Olbricht was to give him were not normal military orders but rather something else again.

Then one day in early spring 1942, Bussche, then serving as adjutant in a replacement regiment stationed just outside of Berlin in Potsdam, got a call saying that General Olbricht was on his way to visit.  Now, as Bussche worded it, the Chief of the GAO was as far above him as the "dear God is from earth."  Bussche knew at once that this visit had nothing to do with official military duties – a suspicion reinforced after the general's arrival by a series of harmless questions and pleasant small talk that did not warrant the visit.  But then Olbricht suggested that Bussche and he "stretch their legs."  In the middle of an exercise field where no one could hear them, Olbricht started to "educate" Bussche about "Valkyrie."

"Valkyrie" was in Bussche's words: "A well organised plan of the Home Army that was to be used in the event that millions of forced labourers in Germany rose up in revolt."  But Bussche understood perfectly well when Olbricht in his relaxed, Saxon inflection "explained" to Bussche:  "Now Valkyrie, that is for when the forced labourers strike and we have to restore order, you understand?"  And Bussche dutifully assured the general, "Jawohl, Herr General."  So Olbricht continued, smiling, "And if it gets really bad, then we'll have to occupy the radio stations and the ministries in Berlin, you know what I mean?"  "Jawohl, Herr General."  And so the conversation continued until by the end, Bussche knew exactly what the General expected of him – without ever hearing a single word that could be construed as treason or even disloyalty.

Bussche would soon be transferred back to the Eastern Front and so the time frame for this meeting can be fixed without doubt to the late spring of 1942.  It took place at a time when German arms were again on the advance, and the population had forgotten the winter of their discontent.  It took place at a time when Stauffenberg was still convinced that Hitler could – and should – win the war.  But Olbricht, Bussche, Beck and other individuals remained unswerving opponents of the Nazi regime, and although they were few and far between they now had a plan, a plan that could and would be employed to bring down the Nazis as soon as the necessary pre-conditions had been created.

The preconditions for the successful implementation of a coup based on Plan "Valkyrie" were two fold.  First, there had to be a reasonable degree of disillusionment with the regime to make the population supportive of or at least neutral toward Hitler's removal from power.  Second, but most important, Hitler had to be dead.  It was no longer possible to contemplate the mere arrest of Hitler.  First, the Valkyrie Orders could only be issued by the C-in-C of the Home Army if Hitler was "incapacitated," and, second, the army was not freed of its personal oath of "unconditional obedience" to Hitler unless he was no longer among the living.  Thus Hitler's assassination was the first and essential step to a coup d'etat.

Responsibility for the assassination was assigned by Beck and the leadership of the evolving military conspiracy to the cell of anti-Nazi opponents centered in the military Counter Intelligence Department and led by Hans Oster.  Oster's opposition to Hitler's policies also pre-dated the war.  He had been in among the men in the September Conspiracy of 1938 that advocated Hitler's assassination even at this early date.  His opposition to Hitler's aggression had been so great that he had taken the dramatic step of warning the Dutch of the impending German invasion in 1940.  By 1942, Oster's hatred of Hitler and his regime was so intense that he was desperate to kill the dictator and happy to provide the means for doing so in the form of captured British plastic explosives.  

But access to the increasingly cautious and reclusive dictator proved a greater challenge than anyone had initially anticipated. It was this, more than anything, that foiled repeated coup attempts over the next two years.

The German Resistance to Hitler was the subject of my PhD thesis. At the time I was the first Western academic granted access to key military archives and documents in what was then still "East Germany." In addition, I conducted interviews with over one hundred survivors of Nazi Germany, both supporters and opponents of the regime. The research culminated in a published dissertation and, later, an English-language biography of General Friederich Olbricht based on the dissertation. It also inspired me to write a novel about the German Resistance, which was recently re-released in ebook format under the title: "Traitors for the Sake of Humanity." Find out more and read reviews of "Traitors" at the publisher's website: Cross Seas Press.

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