Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into 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 30, 2021

Trying to KIll Hitler -- The Assassination Attempts of 1943

While a fascist dictatorship can transform the simplest acts of human kindness into acts of courageous opposition by making human decency and compassion crimes, no dictatorship has ever been toppled by kindness. Once a dictator is entrenched and surrounded by a fascist state, only force will end it. It took the combined military might of the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire to destroy Hitler's fascist state. Another form of force would have saved millions and millions of innocent lives -- not just the Allied soldiers that fell in the liberation of Europe, but the victims of Nazi racism in the death camps. Namely, a military coup d'etat. 

In a dictatorship, such a coup is predicated on the elimination of the "Leader" adulated by the gullible majority.  We know of at least 42 different plans to assassinate Hitler. They all failed for one reason or another. One of these attempts stands out for its sheer genius, while two others deserve an "honorable mention." All were made in 1943.

The Staff of Army Group Center; Tresckow standing on the far right.

At the Headquarters of Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front, the First General Staff Officer, Oberstleutnant Henning von Tresckow, collected around himself a staff of like-minded officers - men fundamentally opposed to the criminal Nazi regime. Even before the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Tresckow had been shocked and appalled by the criminal nature of the orders issued to the subordinate commands. He recognised that such orders as the "Commissar Order" and the "Barbarossa Instructions"  were clear violations of international law, and he convinced his commander, Feldmarschall von Bock to protest to the C-in-C of the Army, Generaloberst von Brauchitsch, but to no effect. By the winter of 1941, he and the men around him at Army Group Centre Headquarters had seen exactly where these barbaric orders led: to atrocities against the helpless and unarmed, whether prisoners of wars or Russian civilians. After becoming witnesses to a large-scale massacre of Jews, Tresckow decided that Hitler and his regime could be tolerated no longer. Hitler had to be eliminated – like a mad dog.

Tresckow sent one of his staff to Berlin with the mission of finding if there wasn't anyone left in the German capital who was as determined as he to eliminate the Nazi dictatorship. The trail led – logically – to Generaloberst Beck, and Beck put Tresckow in touch with both Oster and Olbricht. Henceforth, the Conspiracy had three central operative cells: Oster in Counter Intelligence, responsible for the assassination, Olbricht in GAO, responsible for planning the coup that would follow the assassination, and Tresckow in Army Group Centre, responsible for recruiting a active Field Marschal who would lend his name and troops to the coup.

By the autumn of 1942, however, Tresckow had still not managed to talk his superior, Feldmarschall von Kluge, into condoning treason. Kluge fundamentally sympathized with the sentiments of his staff, but he shied away from treason in time of war. Olbricht, impatient for action, suggested they could wait no longer, and must rely on the troops of the Home Army alone to carry out the coup after a successful assassination. At almost the same time, however, the Gestapo started showing excessive interest in the activities of the Counter-Intelligence Department. Oster was forced to suspend his resistance activities, and Tresckow therefore assumed responsibility for the assassination planning.

The winter of 1942-1943 brought the reverse in Germany's military fortunes that the military resistance leaders had long anticipated. With the tragedy of Stalingrad already in the offing, the military conspirators wanted to be ready to exploit the inevitable shock on the part of the population that was due to follow. Olbricht explicitly asked Tresckow to give him eight weeks time to get the coup plans (which had been much neglected during the summer of German victories) up-to-date. At the end of February 1943, Olbricht passed the word to Tresckow: "We're finished. The trigger can be pulled."

Tresckow was ready. He had at last succeeded in winning over the support of GFM v. Kluge. Kluge - in despair over Hitler's dilettantish and stubborn command style during the disastrous winter of 1942-1943 - was ready to put himself and so his entire Army Group in the service of the coup on the condition that Hitler was dead. More important, however, Kluge had managed to convince Hitler's staff that the dictator should personally visit Army Group Centre.

Generalfeldmarschall Gunther von Kluge

Once Hitler had committed himself to visiting Army Group Centre, Tresckow's only problem was deciding how to kill him. There were various options. Individual officers on (or closely associated with) his staff, notably Georg Freiherr von Boeselager, were extremely good marksmen. Boeselager volunteered to shoot Hitler at close range. But Tresckow knew that Hitler would be surrounded by loyal henchmen and body guards. It would be comparatively easy to overpower a lone assassin or disrupt his aim simply by jostling him or yanking the dictator out of danger at the right moment. 


Georg Freiherr von Boeselanger

The idea therefore evolved into a joint assassination in which all members of the conspiracy attending the luncheon for Hitler would collectively shoot him. Yet on the day of Hitler's visit to Army Group Centre, 13 March 1943, Hitler ate his meal surrounded by officers determined to murder him without suffering any harm. Why? Because Oberst von Tresckow had come up with a far better idea.

From Oster, Tresckow had obtained captured British plastic explosives. These he fashioned into the shape of a cognac bottle, wrapped like a gift, and then – having watched Hitler board the aircraft waiting to fly him back to Berlin - asked another officer in the very act of boarding to take the package back to Berlin as a gift to a mutual friend. The explosive had a 30-minute fuse, and Tresckow set this off before turning the package over to the innocent "courier."

It was the perfect assassination plan. If all had gone according to plan, the bomb would have exploded while Hitler's plane was flying over territory controlled by Soviet partisans. The aircraft would thus have crashed deep inside partisan territory, and it would have taken days to recover the pieces much less start an investigation. Meanwhile, Hitler would have been dead, and the "Valkyrie" orders would have long since have been issued completely legally. 

Furthermore, because the explosives used were British, the initial suspicion would have fallen on foreign saboteurs rather than domestic opponents. Meanwhile, the military resistance would executed the secret aspects of "Plan Valkyrie," i.e. attacking the organs of the Nazi state, while the SS and Nazi Party were still  stunned by the loss of their "infallible leader" – if they weren't bitterly fighting one another to succeed him. The population at large would most likely have supported the army because their faith in the Nazi leadership had been shattered by the recent loss of an entire army at Stalingrad. The increasing devastation of German cities caused by the Anglo-American air offensive was also taking its toll on German moral and loyalty to the regime. The Army on the other hand still enjoyed immense prestige – particularly compared to the increasingly obvious corruption and egotism of low-level Nazi officials.

But although the detonator worked, the explosives failed to ignite. The explosion did not take place. Hitler's aircraft landed safely. Tresckow had to call the alleged recipient of the "gift" and retrieve the bomb before it could be discovered and suspicions aroused.

The "perfect" assassination had failed, but the necessity of assassinating Hitler remained. 

Just eight days later Tresckow found a second opportunity to try to kill Hitler. A representative of Army Group Centre staff was requested to be present in Berlin at the festive opening of an exhibit of captured Soviet equipment and weapons. Hitler was scheduled to open the exhibition, and one of the conspirators, Rudolf-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, volunteered to carry out a suicide attack on Hitler.

Rudolf-Christof Freiherr von Gersdorf

Gersdorff's initial plan was to attach the explosives to the podium where Hitler was scheduled to speak. But Gersdorff was unable to get near the podium in advance of the event. Unsure where else Hitler was likely to linger, Gersdorff decided instead to carry the bomb in the pocket of his greatcoat as he escorted Hitler about the exhibition. But Hitler did not linger. He rushed straight through the exhibition without stopping even once - despite Gersdorff's efforts to attract the dictator's attention to one thing or the other. When Hitler departed the exhibition, Gersdorff could no longer stay near him. The dictator's "sixth sense" appeared to have warned him of the danger, and Gersdorff barely had time to rush a toilet and defuse the bomb.

While this assassination plan was not so perfect as the one in the aircraft, nevertheless it had clear chances of success given the mood in Germany at this time, so shortly after the surrender at Stalingrad. Again the use of English explosives would have deflected suspicions from the German Army and certainly no one had any reason to associate a low-level staff officer from Army Group Centre with General Olbricht and "Valkyrie."

Despite this second failure, the military conspiracy did not lose heart. Over the next months, a number of other officers offered to sacrifice themselves in order to kill Hitler, but for a variety of reasons, none of these men came close to carrying out an assassination until in November 1943. Then Axel von dem Bussche agreed to model the new uniform designed for the Eastern Front before Hitler personally – and use the opportunity to eliminate the dictator. 


Axel Freiherr von dem Bussche, 1942

Bussche wanted no English plastic explosives with a long fuse. His plan was to pull the "plug" on a standard-issue German hand-grenade and then clasp Hitler in his arms until they were both blown to pieces.  Bussche went to Hitler's HQ in East Prussia, the so-called "Wolf's Lair" or Wolfschanze, and waited for the arrival of the uniform he was to model. It didn't come. It had been destroyed in an air-raid. Bussche's home leave expired and he had to return to his unit on the Eastern Front. Here he was severely wounded and soon lost a leg. He was lying in an SS hospital – with the plastic explosives he had decided not to use in a suitcase under his bed - on 20 July 1944. His wounds – and the fact that other conspirators did not betray his name even under Gestapo torture – saved his life. But until his death from natural causes decades later, he blamed himself for his failure.

My novel, "Traitors for the Sake of Humanity,"  depicts the difficulties of assassinating a dictator surrounded by fanatical followers -- among other things. Find out more and read reviews of "Traitors" at the publisher's website: Cross Seas Press.


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.