It is often alleged that the German Resistance did not emerge until Germany was losing the war and the only goal of the conspirators was to avoid the "unconditional surrender" demand of the Allies. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The opposition to and rejection of Hitler on the part of leading members of the German Resistance usually pre-dated his appointment as chancellor and only grew more intense over time. Individuals such as Graf Stauffenberg who did not reject Hitler until after the start of the war were the exception rather than the rule.
Their first military attempt by senior generals of the German army to remove Hitler from power was planned before the Second World War even started -- during the Sudeten Crisis of 1938.
The first military conspiracy against the Hitler and his criminally aggressive policies coalesced in 1938. Arguably, at no subsequent point in time did the conspiracy enjoy comparable chances of success. The military conspiracy of 1938 was headed by none other than the then Chief of the German General Staff at the time, Franz Halder. He was supported by many senior army generals including the later Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben and General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel. The intellectual and moral guidance of this first conspiracy came, however, from the same man who would inspire and mentor all the latter coup attempts against Hitler: Generaloberst Ludwig Beck.
Beck had succeeded General Adam as Chief of the General Staff on 1 October
1933. At the time of his appointment, he still hoped that Hitler's
government would be a positive force for change. He hoped that Hitler would restore Germany to its rightful place as a European Great Power with an army commensurate to its legitimate defensive
needs. Beck supported the policies of the Nazi government to dismantle
the repressive measures of the Versailles Treaty, but at no time did he share
Hitler's aggressive goals. Beck firmly believed that any attempt to obtain
territory by force would lead to a two front war, which Germany would
inevitably lose. Beck, furthermore, was horrified by the methods employed
by the Nazis to suppress opposition domestically. Yet despite increasing
unease over Hitler's domestic and international policies, Beck's crisis of
conscience did not come until 1938.
In March 1938, Beck was given orders to prepare the invasion of Hitler's homeland, Austria. Beck believed that the Austrian army would offer resistance. Although there was little doubt that the German Army would win this war with Austria, Beck was appalled by the idea of Germans killing other ethnic Germans. Beck therefore initially refused to prepare the invasion, but he capitulated when told that if he did not, the task of invading Austria would be turned over to the Nazi paramilitary organisation, the Sturmabteilung, or SA. In the event, the German army was met not with resistance but with flowers and swooning maidens – a spectacular success for Adolf Hitler.
When by mid-July 1938, Beck despaired of convincing Hitler to change his mind, he appealed to the conscience of his fellow generals. In a memo dated 16 July 1938 Beck wrote:
The very existence of the nation is at stake. History will attribute a blood-guilt to leaders that do not act in accordance with their professional expertise and political conscience. Your military duty to obey [orders] ends where your knowledge, your conscience and your responsibility forbids the execution of an order. If in such a situation, your advice and warnings are ignored, then it is your right and your duty before the Nation and History to resign from your positions.
What Beck hoped was that the commanding generals of the German Army could be moved to resign in a collective, simultaneous gesture. This, he hoped, would prevent Hitler from pursuing his aggressive plans. Beck did not believe that Hitler would back down in the face of this collective refusal to engage in an aggressive war. On the contrary, he expected a domestic confrontation between the Army and the Nazis, including the SA and SS. Beck's aim was not merely to stop the aggressive war planned by Hitler, but rather to bring down the entire Nazi regime.
Beck urged the Commander-in-Chief of the Army to use the inevitable
confrontation "to restore the rule of law" in Germany. Beck
even recommended the slogans the Army should use to explain their actions to
the population. Significantly, he suggested not just "Stop the War!"
but also "Peace with the Church!" "Free Expression of
Opinion!" and "Down with the Secret Police!"
Not all of Germany's generals shared Beck's abhorrence of the Nazis and their
polices, however, and so not all were willing to risk a confrontation. In the
absence of unanimity among the Army's leadership, Beck could not hope to win a
confrontation with the Nazis, but he was still not willing to accept the
"blood guilt" of acting against his better judgement and his
conscience. He resigned.
On the other hand, while not all generals in the German Army supported Beck, by no means did all oppose him. Generals von Witzleben and von Stülpnagel, supported by Hans Oster in the Counter Intelligence Agency, were just as opposed to the Nazis as Beck. These men, under the leadership of Beck's immediate successor, Franz Halder, chose to pursue Beck's goal of bringing down the Nazi regime by employing conspiratorial – rather than confrontational – means. The first loose ties were established to civilian leaders equally outraged by the Nazis, and a plan was forged to arrest Hitler and try him either as a traitor or have him committed to a mental institution.
General Karl Heinrich von Stuelpnagel
The entire action, which included detailed orders down to divisional level for
the seizure of key installations and the effective disarming of the Nazi
paramilitary organisations, was to be triggered by orders to invade
Czechoslovakia. The reasoning was simple. The German people were
terrified of a new world war. They had suffered bitterly in the First
World War and they adored Hitler because he had reversed many of the
humiliations of the defeat suffered in 1918 without war. The leaders of
this military conspiracy firmly believed that if the German people saw Hitler
was risking a new world war merely for the sake of annexing the ethnically
German portions of Czechoslovakia, than they would stop supporting him.
Unfortunately, the French and the British had also suffered bitterly in the
"Great War" and pacifism was rampant. Even those elements not inherently opposed to war, were nevertheless reluctant to risk
a new war with Germany. So at the last moment, the British and French caved in.
They allowed themselves to be talked into a "peace conference"
with Hitler and signed away the territorial integrity of a sovereign state
(Czechoslovakia) they had helped create in 1919 and guaranteed.
When the French and British accepted Hitler's word that the Sudetenland was his "last" territorial ambition and withdrew their opposition to Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland, the German Resistance was robbed of its justification for action. So the German Wehrmacht marched triumphantly into the Sudetenland without a shot being fired. It was unthinkable to arrest the successful dictator on the grounds that he was mad. The coup with the best chances of success did not take place, and the conspirators went their separate ways.
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.