But first …
The Plots Against Hitler
By Danny Orbach, (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 406 Pages)
Reviewed by Steven R. Maher
In The Plots Against Hitler Danny Orbach, a former intelligence operative in the Israeli army, revisits attempts by Germans to kill Adolf Hitler. For the most part, the book concentrates on the well-known assassination attempt on Hitler organized by Claus von Stauffenberg on July 20, 1944, the event inspiring the film “Valkyrie” with Tom Cruise playing Stauffenberg.
If you’re not a history buff or haven’t seen the movie “Valkyrie,” Stauffenberg was a Colonel in charge of Hitler’s “Home Army,” a fighting force composed mainly of old men or children large enough to carry a rifle. Stauffenberg placed a bomb next to Hitler during a military conference, quietly left the bunker, and took off to Berlin to organize a coup. The bomb exploded, but failed to kill Hitler. Stauffenberg’s coup attempt fell apart after Hitler did a radio broadcast announcing he had survived the assassination effort. Stauffenberg and other heroic members of the conspiracy were afterwards rounded up and shot, or on Hitler’s direct order, strung up from meat hooks with piano wire, their agony filmed for the Fuhrer’s viewing delight.
That’s how most Germans would like to remember Stauffenberg and his compatriots. This was the first historical depiction of the episode after World War II. This was for many Germans a comfortable offset to the historical guilt for the Nazi period, proof that not all Germans were evildoers, mass-murderers, or anti-Semites.
In recent decades, historians of both the left and the right have challenged this rosy scenario. Some argued that many of the conspirators only turned against Hitler after Stalingrad and after the tide had turned against the Third Reich. Others argued that some of Stauffenberg’s followers were far from the heroic figures depicted by history, and that some had committed terrible atrocities. Still others argue that the conspirators were motivated by a cowardly desire to escape historical condemnation – and allied retribution – for Nazi war crimes.
No one better symbolizes this better than Arthur Nebe. From June to November 1941 Nebe oversaw SS Einsatzgruppen B, set up to massacre Jews after the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
Explains the U.S. Holocaust Memorial website: “The Einsatzgruppen, often drawing on local civilian and police support, carried out mass-murder operations. In contrast to the methods later instituted of deporting Jews from their own towns and cities or from ghetto settings to killing centers, Einsatzgruppen came directly to the home communities of Jews and massacred them.”
Another website puts the Einsatzgruppen B death toll at 134,000.
Yet Nebe joined the anti-Hitler conspiracy in 1938, remained a co-conspirator until after the July 20, 1944, attempt, and was hanged for his complicity in the plot. Should Nebe be remembered for his heroism in trying to kill Hitler or vilified for his successful slaughter of Russian Jews? As Orbach points out, if Nebe was interested in his own self-preservation, joining a plot to kill Hitler in Nazi Germany was the last thing he would do.
Afflicted by Bad Luck
Hitler credited his survival to the protection of God. Orbach attributes Hitler’s survival to luck. Bombs failed to go off; other Nazis the conspirators wanted to kill, such as Himmler and Goering, were not present to be killed with Hitler; an adjutant who would shoot Hitler couldn’t get into a meeting because the event organizer banned adjutants due to a lack of space; personnel prepared to suicide bomb Hitler were unavailable at the last minute.
Most of the book deals with the metamorphosis of the July 20, 1944, group. This entity was comprised of upper-class, intermarried Germans who, through strong bonds of family solidarity and social caste, blocked Gestapo infiltration of their organization. The group’s small size was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because the group’s inbred insularity kept Hitler’s secret police from penetrating the organization. (Indeed, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of Germany’s military intelligence, was a part of the group, and Orbach details episodes of Canaris using his position to assist Jews in escaping the Holocaust.) A curse, because the group lacked sufficient breadth to put assets in the right place at the right time to assassinate Hitler.
This group first coalesced in the late 1930s during Hitler’s bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The resistance wanted to depose Hitler in September 1938 during the Munich crisis and were only waiting for the west to confront Hitler before acting. When Chamberlain appeased Hitler instead, the plan to depose Hitler collapsed. When Hitler won a series of stunning military victories, culminating in the capture of Paris in June 1940, the group went into stasis until Hitler’s defeats in the Soviet Union solidified their resolve to act.
Bad luck afflicted the July 20, 1944, group to the end. They were delighted when Hitler’s most famous general, Irwin Rommel, joined their group; Rommel’s enormous prestige could prevent civil war from breaking out once Hitler was dead. Three days before the bomb planned to kill Hitler went off, Rommel was grievously wounded when allied airplanes strafed Rommel’s car. Afterwards, Hitler gave Rommel a choice: kill himself with painless poison or be court martialed and his family sent to concentration camps.
On the day of the assassination itself, Stauffenberg was in the men’s room starting the delay fuses on the two bombs when one of Hitler’s aides came and urged them to hurry, Hitler was about ready for Stauffenberg’s report. Panic-stricken, Stauffenberg told his adjutant to take the second bomb back to the car with him. The second bomb would have been detonated by the first bomb’s explosion if it had been put into the briefcase; and everyone in the bunker, including Hitler, would have been killed.
Afterwards, the plan foundered because there had been no Plan B to act upon if Hitler survived the bomb. All assumed that if a bomb of this magnitude went off in a closed bunker, everyone would be killed. Flummoxed by the Fuhrer’s survival, the conspirators were paralyzed into inaction when they should have acted decisively to seize power.
The most impressive thing about this book is the author’s objectivity. He paints a very careful picture of the flawed human beings who tried to kill history’s worst despot. He does so in a manner that leaves the reader pondering the character of those Germans who tried to save their country, too few realizing too late that their nation had been captured by a Satanic dictatorship.